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

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Cold Shoulder or Warm Handshake?

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

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

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

A British Icon Revived – The NHS under New Labour:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Public Spending, Declining Regions & Economic Development:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Asylum Seekers, EU ‘Guest’ Workers & Immigrants:

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

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

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

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

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Multilingual & Multicultural Britain:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(to be continued)

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

Epilogue to the Eighties & Prologue to the Nineties:

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

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

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

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

The Election of 1992 – A Curious Confidence Trick?:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Black Wednesday and the Maastricht Treaty:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The concluding chapter of the Thatcher Revolution:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Economic decline/ growth & political resuscitation:

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

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

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

Fighting the return of Fascism in Europe:

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

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

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

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

Back to basics?

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

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

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

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

Heroes and Villains at Home and Abroad:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saint Margaret – Down and Out in Paris and London:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Pause)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(to be continued…)

 

The Rise of Thatcherism in Britain, 1979-83: Part One.   1 comment

Margaret’s Marvellous Medicine:

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Ten years ago, nearly thirty years after Mrs Thatcher’s first general election as Tory leader, Andrew Marr wrote:

Margaret Thatcher … was shrewd, manipulative and bold, verging on the reckless. She was also extremely lucky. Had Labour not been busy disembowelling itself and had a corrupt, desperate dictatorship in South America not taken a nationalistic gamble with some island sheep-farmers, her government would probably have been destroyed after a single term. Had the majority in her cabinet who disagreed with her about the economy  been prepared to say boo to a goose, she might have been forced out even before that. In either case, her principles, ‘Thatcherism’, would be a half-forgotten doctrine, mumbled about by historians instead of being the single most potent medicine ever spooned down the gagging post-war British.

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The one economic medicine so bitter that no minister in the seventies had thought of trying it – mass unemployment – was soon uncorked and poured onto the spoon. Inflation, not unemployment, was seen as public enemy number one, and harsh measures seemed justified. Indeed, as wage-rises were seen as the as the main source of inflation, heavy unemployment, it was sometimes argued, would weaken trade unions and was a price worth paying. An economic squeeze was introduced, involving heavy tax increases and a reduction in public borrowing to deflate the economy, thus reducing demand and employment. In the 1980s, two million manufacturing jobs disappeared. The socially corrosive effects of mass unemployment were manifested nationwide in the inner-city rioting which broke out in 1981. The post-war consensus was well and truly broken. After his defeat in the General Election of 1979, James Callaghan stumbled on as Labour leader until October 1980 after which Denis Healey fought a desperate rearguard action against the left, as his party did its best to commit suicide in public. What exactly was ‘the left’ and how was it composed?

Labour’s ‘Disembowelment’:

By the late 1970s, the Communist Party of Great Britain had almost collapsed. What was left of it had become ‘Eurocommunist’, like the parties in France and elsewhere had become following the crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968. The world’s first elected Marxist leader, Salvador Allende had been deposed in a coup in 1973 and thousands of his supporters became refugees in Britain. Where I lived in 1979-80, Swansea, there was a community of about fifty families, many of them studying at the University. For many of them, Castro’s Cuba was still a beacon of hope, and there were other Marxist movements in Nicaragua and El Salvador which re-focused the outlook of the ‘broad left’ in Britain. But there was widespread disillusionment with the Soviet system to which the CPGB had previously pledged its undying and largely uncritical obedience. The final nails in the coffin were driven in by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in late 1979, and the crushing of ‘Solidarity’ in Poland the following year. Further to the left were a bewildering number of Trotskyist and Maoist groups, all hostile to the Soviet Union, all claiming to be the true party of Lenin, all denouncing one another over ideological and tactical detail. They tended to be dour and puritanical, though the Socialist Workers’ Party attracted a significant among students following through their setting up of the Anti-Nazi League.

The Militant Tendency had descended from earlier groups which had first organised in Britain in the forties. ‘Militant’ caused a huge convulsion in the Labour Party from the early to mid-eighties. Harold Wilson was the first Labour leader to complain a lot about ‘Trots’ trying to take the party over, but in the seventies, he was largely ignored and Militant was allowed to build up strong local bases, particularly in Liverpool, but also in other traditional Labour strongholds in the Midlands which had been very much in ‘the mainstream’ of the Party, like Coventry, where it had taken control of the City Council as early as 1937, and had continually returned high-profile MPs such as Richard Crossman and Maurice Edelman after 1945. The SWP, supporting strikes and campaigning against racism and other ‘single issues’, sold their distinctive newspaper on the streets and their clenched fist logo and dramatic slogans appear in the background to countless industrial and political marches, pickets and marches. In South Wales in 1980, they organised ‘the people’s march for jobs’, a 1930s-style ‘hunger march’. By this time, mass unemployment had already arrived in Britain, especially among young people who had just left school and, as ever, the SWP seized their opportunity. Beyond Militant and the SWP, other far-left groups inside and outside the Labour Party would achieve brief notoriety because they were supported by a famous actress, such as Vanessa Redgrave of the Revolutionary Workers’ Party, or through influence in a local party or borough. Eventually, the ‘loony left’ would come to the boil, enjoying enough support, particularly in London, to shred Labour’s credibility.

In the late seventies and early eighties, however, the influence of ‘hard left’ socialists within the party was far more significant than those working for secretive Marxist parties. Like those on the right, including Callaghan by 1979, they believed the old consensus politics was failing. Some of their thinking was also shared by the Tory right – they were hostile to the European Community, opposed to Welsh and Scottish nationalism, and hostile to the Anglo-American alliance. But that was where the similarities ended. The Labour left wanted to deal with world economic chaos by pulling up the drawbridge, imposing strict controls on what was imported and taking control of major industries, as well as of ‘the City’. The left thought that ‘Planning’ was too weak, and therefore that it should be dramatically expanded. Any extreme political view tends to develop a conspiracy theory. The Labour left believed that Wilson, Callaghan and Healey had been captured by international capitalism. So the ‘siege economy’ and the Alternative Economic Strategy became the main shibboleths of the left, and Tony Benn became the leader of Labour’s peasants’ revolt. He was on the side of strikers who had brought much of the country to a halt in 1979 and Arthur Scargill, elected leader of the NUM soon after, told Benn that he could be the next Labour leader himself.

But within five years, both the NUM and their fellow unions would lose almost half their membership and any political influence they had briefly enjoyed. The ‘high-water’ mark for the left was reached when Benn himself came within a hair’s breadth of winning the deputy leadership against Denis Healey, during the middle of a vicious and deeply damaging Labour civil war. These were the turbulent years of ‘Bennism’ within the party, long before he became a kind of revered national grandfather with a white beard to go with his pipe. During his bid to become deputy, I heard him speak to a packed and transfixed audience at the Brangwyn Hall in Swansea in 1980, careful and convincing in his critique of NATO, nuclear weapons and market capitalism, if not in his advocacy of the Alternative Economic Strategy. In the NUS, David Aaronovitch spoke in favour of the AES in a debate in Blackpool on the economy which he admitted afterwards had disappointed him for its lack of new thinking. Speaking to the NUS Wales Conference a few weeks later on the same issue, I adapted a headline from The Guardian:

When England catches a cold, Wales gets influenza: When England gets influenza, Wales develops pneumonia.

Wales: A View from the Abyss:

In 1979-80, Wales was in need of a stronger and better alternative medicine than could be provided by old-fashioned Keynesianism.

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Above: The UCMC (NUS Wales) Executive at the Autumn 1979 Conference

in Llandrindod Wells (the author is in the centre right).

In April 1979, just before the general election, I was elected ‘Cadeirydd’ (‘Chairholder’) of the National Union of Students in Wales (UCMC), working full-time from an office in Swansea. A month later, I began to wish I had declined the nomination, as an abyss seemed to open up below me. In the General Election, Wales located itself firmly within The South of Britain. At a time of heavy swings towards the Conservatives elsewhere, the heaviest swing of all, outside London, was in Wales. The Tory tide swept irresistibly through rural west Wales in particular. It was the real force which unseated the veteran Plaid Cymru President, Gwynfor Evans, in Carmarthen, to Labour’s benefit. The Tories took Brecon and Radnor, Montgomery and Anglesey, the last with a swing of twelve per cent. Apart from the three-way marginal of Carmarthen, Labour was driven back into the valleys of south Wales, though even there its massive majorities were significantly eaten into. Nevertheless, Labour remained by far the biggest party in Wales, with twenty-one seats out of thirty-six and forty-seven per cent of the votes. But the Conservatives, with eleven seats and thirty-two per cent, had reached a high point they had last held fifty years before. They swept through non-industrial Wales, obliterating political landmarks which had been familiar for generations. For Labour, there was a whiff of 1931 in the air and the elimination of Welsh peculiarities strongly suggested an integration into Britain more total than anything yet experienced.

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One paradoxical effect of this abrupt reversal of two hundred years of history was the isolation of the Welsh intelligentsia from its people. In this generation, in sharp contrast to the last, creative writers in Welsh and in English started to draw together. Professor Gwyn Williams (above), my mentor at University College Cardiff, was one of those who articulated English-speaking Wales within national and international contexts, and his work was lauded equally widely. As younger Welsh writers began to move out of the kind of universe which the work of the Saunders Lewis school of Welsh-language writers, younger writers in English (‘sons of the miners’) started to adopt a more firmly nationalist position. In general, the younger Anglo-Welsh poets avoided the sort of polemic which assumed a Welsh national identity. As Tony Curtis wrote in 1986, there was no unquestionable Wales, rather they must work from the immediate context, the known. Emyr Humphries wrote of:

… the sense of disorientation prevailing among the majority who have been deprived of the language and the opportunity of inheriting the history and traditions that go with it.

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John Ormond’s My Grandfather and his Apple-tree is the most successful of “character” poems. In concentrating on the life of one man the poet summarised the whole broad sweep of social change in South Wales from a predominantly rural economy to the accelerating expansion of industrial communities in the coal valleys that created a “Klondike” in Wales. John Ormond’s poem works effectively at several levels: as an historical poem; as a family remembrance it is an allegorical treatment of the life of a man as a social, economic and religious animal; the whole is a brilliantly sustained metaphor with a strong narrative structure. Ormond’s reputation by the time he was in his fifties in 1979 was notable, as was his influence on younger poets. One of these, Gillian Clarke, had first published in 1970, and by 1979 was established as a leading Welsh poet following the publication of her first full-length collection, The Sundial, which became the most successful book of poetry from a Welsh publisher. Living in suburban Cardiff, she was spiritually inhabiting a more rural, Welsh-speaking world to the west. In the seventies, the concern for voicing Welsh issues and proclaiming a specific Welsh identity provided a receptive ground for Gillian Clarke’s growth as a writer. In addition to poetry, major efforts went into drama and a whole range of arts; twin academies and a writers’ association came into being, and the Welsh Arts Council became more active. One of these miners’ sons, Dai Smith was critical of what he called …

… the production of Wales that was proceeding apace in the Cymricising suburbs of Cardiff, in academic and journalistic circles on the subsidised pages of a Welsh-language press and on the air-waves had no real need to take account of those who did not fit into the picture.

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The votes of 1979 dramatically registered the end of the epoch of the ‘old’ Welsh intelligentsia. While the ideologies of technical, managerial and administrative leaders remained opaque and without any specific Welsh identity, the most visible and creative elders of educated opinion among the Welsh had been rejected by their people. The task of transmitting a fresh, iconoclastic reappraisal of Wales to the Welsh fell to historians like Gwyn A. Williams, Dai Smith, Kenneth O. Morgan and D. Hywel Davies, among others. I was fortunate enough to be an apprentice in this task, though more concerned, like my fellow-researcher William D. Jones, with the history of the Welsh outside Wales and their images of the home country. As Tony Curtis observed:

Wales is not what we assumed it to be . Simplistic assumptions of “national pride”, a self-regarding “national” identity, are not to be allowed to go unquestioned… In the contemporary context writers face a harder task than even those raised by the ferment of the language campaign and the Devolution Vote, issues which served to focus much recent writing and to justify its polemic.

Almost Immediately Wales was fully exposed to the Conservative crusade and the radically restructuring of an increasingly multinational capitalism in Britain. The Welsh working population reached a peak in 1979, when 1,002,000 people were at work, fifty-five per cent of them in the service sector and forty-two per cent of them women in the core industries. The run-down of the coal industry continued and was followed by a sharp reduction in steel. Between June 1980 and June 1982, the official working population fell by no fewer than 106,000. The most catastrophic losses were in steel which lost half its workers and plummeted to 38,000. Public administration, however, lost fewer, around three thousand, while a whole range of services in insurance, banking, entertainment and educational and medical services actually gained over four thousand workers. In consequence, more men than women lost jobs at first, particularly in 1980-81, though much women’s work was part-time. During 1982 unemployment was heavier among women, but the overall result, in terms of number, was by June 1983 to increase the proportion of women at work within the central areas of the economy to forty-five per cent. By that time, the official working population of Wales had fallen to 882,000, its lowest level in the century. There was a high level of unemployment and particularly serious was the wasting of a whole generation of young people.

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The entire Welsh working population was beginning to take on the character of an informal, casual, unstructured labour force, an intimation of what was going to become a general experience in Britain to come. In the mid-1980s, Dai Smith commented that,

The crisis that would in the 1980s affect the vast majority of Welsh people was an economic, social and political crisis. … The ‘Condition of Wales Question’ is not for most of the Welsh about Welshness at all, it is about unemployment and jobs, about bad architecture, about bureaucracy and political participation, about dead-ends and opportunities. But nothing in Wales is subsidized more than ‘culture’. 

The Wales TUC was weakened and losing both numbers and funds, seemingly incapable of responding to the crisis. In reality, its autonomy was strictly limited in any case. Out of an income of thirty-three thousand pounds in 1980, nearly twenty thousand was a grant from the British TUC. In that year, its affiliated membership totalled over 580,000, nearly sixty per cent of the working population. But the response to the evident transformation of the working population varied among the unions, with NUPE being the most rapid and adaptable. Overall, the organised workers’ movement seemed encased in a perception of a ‘working class’ which had become a myth. The People’s March for Jobs and other demonstrations were not as significant in Wales as elsewhere in Britain, despite being led by veteran miners’ leader, Will Paynter, for part of the way through south Wales. But in 1982, the South Wales NUM did force a dramatic U-turn from the Thatcher government over proposed regional pit closures. We celebrated, but also asked the question, Have the Miners Really Won? Another former miners’ leader, Dai Francis, had his doubts, which later turned out to be justified. Thatcher would be ready next time.

The student movement was in much the same position as the trade unions, though in 1980 NUS Wales succeeded in prizing greater resources out of NUS UK by its university unions paying directly into a Welsh affiliation fund, rather than sending the money direct to London. By the end of my year in office in August 1980, it had also established a more federal constitution, which helped to win back support from a number of disillusioned and disgruntled Welsh-speaking students in the North and West. The University of Wales had also accepted our proposal for a central board to coordinate the development of Welsh-medium teaching throughout all the university colleges, rather than simply concentrating it in Aberystwyth and Bangor. In other areas, we won support from HRH the Prince of Wales, as Chancellor of the University, for our concerns about the government’s introduction of full-cost fees for overseas students and confronted the Welsh Rugby Union over its support for the unofficial tour of the South African Barbarians. This South Wales Campaign Against Racism in Sport introduced Peter Hain to Wales.

UCMC also campaigned successfully to prevent the Labour-controlled local authorities from imposing projected cuts on part-time students. The rise of the Left within the Labour Party was matched by a leftward shift in Plaid Cymru, which wrote a socialist state into its programme for Wales and a ‘broad left’ was formed with the Welsh Labour left and former Communist Party members. In the student movement, a distinctively Welsh socialist group emerged out of the remnants of the old Broad Left, which had been replaced by the Left Alliance within NUS UK, now including the Union of Liberal Students. Socialist students in Wales decided that a better strategy to manufacturing alliances was to reclaim the university unions and develop unions in other colleges through socialist education and organisation at a more grass-roots level.

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There seemed to be a limited response from a population readily accepting the values and arguments of ‘Thatcherism’ as they developed. The most radical political action went into the multiplying women’s groups, ecological movements and above all CND which acquired much more weight and spirit in the valleys and into west Wales than any other political body.  On 23rd February 1982, all the Welsh local authorities came together to declare Wales a Nuclear Free Zone, refusing to distribute the government’s infamous Protect and Survive pamphlets. The historian and lifelong CND campaigner, E. P. Thompson came to Carmarthen later in the year to address a mass rally. The protest camp at Greenham Common missile base was started by a march of women from Cardiff.

The turmoil continued around the language issue. The census of 1981 revealed that the proportion of Welsh-speakers had slipped back to 18.9 per cent, but that the decline in the use of the language overall had slowed dramatically over the decade and seemed to be coming to a halt. There were marginal increases in the numbers of Welsh-speakers in the most English-speaking areas such as Gwent and Glamorgan, probably due to the migration of Welsh-speakers to fill new jobs in the media in the capital and the increase in the number of Welsh learners in those counties, particularly among students in the arts and young journalists. As one of the enumerators, I found people who declared themselves as Welsh-speakers in some of the most unlikely districts of Cardiff.  Most serious, however, was the continued decline in the heartlands of the language, notably in south-west Wales, where the fall was six per cent. But the retrenchment in Welsh-speaking was noticeable in Ceredigion (Cardiganshire) and parts of Gwynedd and there were signs that the crusading of the past decade had begun to take effect among young people in these heartlands, especially where Welsh-medium or ‘bilingual’ schools had been set up.

Overall, out of a population of 2,790,00, around 550,000 were Welsh-speakers. In the west and north-west, particular districts, villages and even individual pubs created a linguistic map almost as tribally complicated as a cultural map of Northern Ireland. The continuing threat to the heartlands, y Fro Gymraeg, had led to the creation of a new cultural nationalist group, Adfer (‘Restore’), by the mid-seventies, whose intellectual supporters had been dedicated to the creation of a Welsh Gaeltacht, an ethnically pure economy and society on the basis of Welsh self-sufficiency. In Bangor, led by theology students, they had succeeded in creating a breakaway, Undeb Cymraeg (UCMB), a Welsh-speaking student union in 1977. The movement tended to see only the native Welsh-speaking Cymry as truly Welsh. The remainder, the vast majority throughout Wales, were described as Cymreig (‘culturally Welsh’) or at ‘best’, Cymry di-Gymraeg (‘non-Welsh-speaking Welsh’), the other face of the coin to the anti-Welsh-language British chauvinism which was prevalent in many Labour areas in the south, not least on the Left. Between the two groups of chauvinists, the proposal for a national assembly was easily defeated in the referendum of 1978, exposing Wales to economic pneumonia and the onset of Thatcherism, until its narrow reversal in the referendum of 1998.

In the early eighties, the divisions over the language were clear for all to see and were exacerbated by a major campaign of arson against holiday homes in northern and western Wales. In a major police action, Operation Tán (Fire) produced a chorus of complaint about violations of civil-rights, telephone-tapping, and the use of provocateurs. The NUS office phones were by now so routinely tapped that we could almost talk directly to Special Branch. On one occasion they contacted us directly to gather information about the beating up of Iraqi dissidents on the streets of South Wales by Saddam Hussein’s Baathist henchmen, the only students wearing suits and carrying rolled umbrellas! In the winter of 1980, driving out of Snowdonia following a meeting in Bangor, together with other members of the National Executive of NUS Wales, the North Wales Police stopped and searched the union’s fleet-hire hatch-back for flammable materials. They didn’t book us for speeding but joked about how wealthy Welsh students must be to be driving around in a brand-new car. They had obviously spotted the familiar dragons’ tongue Cymdeithas yr Iaith (Welsh Language Society) sticker in the back window.

Later in the year, John Jenkins, one of the bombers behind the botched attempt to blow a hole in the walls of Caernarfon Castle, in which two bombers accidentally blew themselves up and a little child was badly mutilated, before the 1969 Investiture of the Prince of Wales, was released from jail. Whilst there, where he had studied for an Open University degree. Having been initially accepted to study for a postgraduate diploma in social work, he was then rejected by University College Swansea without explanation. As our campaign to get the University to admit Jenkins gathered pace and hit the headlines, both in Welsh and English, both inside and outside Wales, we received a telephone message from ‘friends’ in high places in the university that Jenkins was still, somehow, a threat. That ‘somehow’ was never explained.

Our protests at the University of Wales Court meeting, held at Swansea, went ahead, but all the student representatives, ex-officio sabbatical officers of the constituent college unions, were forced to withdraw when the Jenkins case came up. As an NUS employee, I was initially allowed to stay in the meeting until the registrar of my own university college, Cardiff, pointed out that I was still registered as a student there. I was asked to withdraw, which meant we were prevented from reading our statement on the case, or even from having it read on our behalf by another Court member following my withdrawal. I, therefore, refused to leave, and the case was not discussed. Jenkins was not admitted, and we never found out what ‘good reason’ the college had for rejecting his application.  Soon after I received a message from my own university college, Cardiff, that I would not be allowed to extend my sabbatical at the Swansea NUS HQ for a further year and remain as a registered student, which would mean I had to leave the university permanently. I dutifully obeyed and returned to my PhD research in Cardiff in September 1980. Julie Barton was elected to replace me, becoming the first woman President of a more autonomous UCMC (NUS Wales), holding the post until 1982.

By then, the growth of the academic study of modern Welsh history became a major intellectual force which helped to bridge some of these divisions. The journal Llafur (Labour), the organ of the Welsh Labour History Society, of which I was a member, successfully married academics and workers. I returned to Swansea in the autumn of 1980, to do some research into the history of the mining valleys in the 1930s at the South Wales Miners’ Library, set up by the South Wales NUM in co-operation with University College Swansea, managed by Hywel Francis, son of the former miners’ leader.  It had rescued what was left of the magnificent miners’ institute libraries and created a centre for adult education, active research and a memorial to the fallen of the Spanish Civil War, many of those who joined the International Brigade having been South Wales miners. Soon after, however, the University College was forced into making financial cuts and proposed to lop off the Miners’ Library. In an effort to save it, the miners themselves became the major protagonists.

By 1982, Wales had its own Welsh-medium fourth television channel, a Welsh-medium teaching Board within the still federal University of Wales, and a quasi-official, ubiquitous bilingualism in public life. ‘Superted’ had been launched into orbit from S4C’s new offices in Canton, Cardiff. However, the task still remained of voicing the concerns of the eighty per cent who were outside the ‘orbit’ of the language and who, for a complexity of reasons, had turned their backs on the chance of Devolution, but still felt a deep sense of being “Welsh”.

The Grocer’s Daughter:

Looking back from over thirty-five years later, the epic events of 1979-83 seem to have a clear pattern. Powerful ideas challenged the post-war consensus and, following a nail-biting struggle, defeated its adherents. But from the perspective of those who lived through these events, especially in traditionally ‘left-wing’ areas of Britain, there was remotely inevitable about this ‘victory’. As student leaders, for example, we really thought that we could defeat the Tories on the issue of full-cost fees for overseas students. Even HRH the Prince of Wales, following our Lampeter meeting with him in 1980, expressed his concerns in one of his now famous hand-written missives to the government about the likely effects of these being introduced on Britain’s relations with the Commonwealth and on Britain’s new technical universities, which were dependent on the recruitment of overseas students. Almost the entire University Sector in Britain and its overseas offshoots, was publicly against the government on this, though many vice-chancellors were secretly rubbing its hands with the prospect of attracting more oil-rich Saudis and Baathists from Iraq and Syria, rather than poor South American, African and Middle-Eastern ‘refugees’.

It was also unclear what sort of Britain Margaret Roberts, the grocer’s daughter and devout Lincolnshire Christian, hoped to create. She did not believe in privatising industries or defeating inflation merely for economic reasons. She wanted to remoralize society, creating a nation whose ‘Victorian Values’ were expressed through secure marriages, like her own, self-help and thrift, moderation in all things, good neighbourliness and hard work. Though much attacked by church leaders like her arch nemesis, David Jenkins, the Bishop of Durham, she talked of God and morality incessantly from the moment she apparently quoted Francis of Assisi at the door of Number Ten on the morning following her May 1979 Election victory. In fact, it was a Victorian re-working of the well-known prayer. Later, it was endlessly used to show what a hypocrite she was. But for the people she had determined to govern on behalf of, the inflation-ravaged middle-classes who had despaired of Britain’s future, believing that the unions could never be tamed by the State, she brought both faith and hope. She claimed that she was in politics because of the conflict between good and evil. Yet Thatcherism heralded an age of unparalleled consumption, credit, show-off wealth, quick bucks and sexual libertinism. The Thatcher years did not bring harmony to the lives of most of the Queen’s subjects, but further social and economic division. When politicians determine to free people, they can never be sure what they are freeing them for. In reality, the lady in Lincoln green turned out to be the antithetical mirror image of its legendary hero, like the Robin Hood character in Monty Python and the Holy Grail:

Steals from the poor, gives to the rich,

Silly bitch!

Perhaps, as a Wesleyan, she had too generous a view of human nature, especially (and ironically) contrasted with her Calvinistic Baptist predecessor, who believed that people are essentially selfish and need to be moderated and regulated by the state for the common good to prevail. John Wesley’s famous mantra was: Work all you can, earn all you can, give all you can. Unfortunately, it took most of her period in power for her and the country to realise her theological error, that the sin of omission lay in respect of the third part of this triplet, and by that time much of Britain’s wealth and many of its assets had been stripped and shipped abroad. For the first four years of her leadership, the Tories were continuing to talk about a wages policy and the importance of consulting with the trade unions, perhaps on the German model. There was also talk of the need to control the money supply and offer council tenants the right to buy their homes. But other privatization measures barely featured. As to unemployment, Mrs Thatcher herself had been vigorously attacking the Callaghan government for its failure to tackle the dole queues. One of the Tories’ most successful election posters had portrayed an ever-lengthening queue with the slogan Labour isn’t working. I remember seeing it on an Easter visit home, dominating Chamberlain Square in Birmingham. With unemployment still around a million, the message she was giving out while still in opposition was:

We would have been drummed out of office if we’d had this level of unemployment.

If the British public had studied their new Prime Minister a little more closely they would have noticed a more abrasive edge to her personality, especially when she talked of the failure of the three previous administrations, including that of Ted Heath, to control the trade unions. She would point aggressively across the House of Commons and declare, Never forget how near this country came to government by picket. She had also received the nickname, The Iron Lady as an insult from the Soviet leadership for her rabidly anti-communist speech in 1977. It was only much later that it became a badge of honour for her. Moreover, the cabinet full of Tory squires and former Heath supporters hardly looked like a revolutionary cabal. Denis Healy memorably compared being attacked by the Chancellor, Geoffrey Howe, to being savaged by a dead sheep. But Mrs Thatcher herself was a far more determined woman than most people realised. The single most important influence throughout her life seems to have come from her father, Alderman Alfred Roberts, a self-made, austere Methodist and hard-working owner of a grocer’s shop on the main road north at Grantham. Although he stood for the council as an independent, Roberts was of Tory instincts. He became mayor in 1945 and chaired local charities, the Workers’ Educational Association, and acted as a director of a local bank. He was independent-minded and taught his daughter to speak her mind and to argue. In this, he was extremely successful, since her governments effectively devastated everything he had stood for in terms of local politics.

Unlike Wilson, who used his Yorkshire accent as a badge of identity, she lost her Lincolnshire ‘burr’ somewhere on her way down the A1. As her biographer, Hugo Young put it, she was born a northerner but became a southerner, the quintessence of a Home Counties politician. She was elected for the well-off middle-class seat of Finchley in 1959, her politics having been formed by the experience of post-war Labour austerity. Seen from above, the socialist experiment in planning and ‘fair shares for all’ might have looked noble, she concluded, but from below it was a maze of deprivation, shortage and envy. She later reflected that…

No one who lived through austerity, who can remember snoek, spam and utility clothing, could mistake the petty jealousies, minor tyrannies, ill-neighbourliness and sheer sourness of those years for idealism and equality.

During the 1979 election, using all the skills of her new image-makers and advertising agency, and with a shrewd understanding of the importance of television, she was still trailing Callaghan in the personal popularity stakes by a full nineteen points. It was Labour’s unpopularity with the electorate which cost the party power, not Margaret Thatcher’s allure. Yet without her, the Tory government of 1979-83 would have been entirely different. Without her confrontational style and determination not to be beaten, Britain would have been stuck with a pay policy and high public spending. The crucial issue for her on being elected was to get a grip of inflation. To the Thatcherites, this meant monetarism, the basic proposition of which was that inflation is directly related to the amount of money in the economy. Where the Thatcherite monetarists diverged from Keynesian economics was in the argument that the paramount role of government in economic management was to control the money supply, which could be scientifically measured and calibrated. The other issues, unemployment and productivity included, would eventually resolve themselves. All the government needed to do was to hold firm to the principle, get the money supply down, and it would succeed.

The Thatcher government, in reality, could have restricted the money supply by raising taxes, but it was committed to cutting most taxes. Almost immediately, Howe cut the basic rate of income tax from thirty-three to thirty per cent and the top rate from eighty-three to sixty per cent. Spending cuts were agreed too, but to make up the difference a huge rise in value-added tax (VAT), doubling to fifteen per cent, was brought in. Money was being redistributed from the masses, paying more for food, clothes and other essential items, to higher rate taxpayers. In industrial policy, one of the ‘moderates’, Jim Prior, made good on the manifesto promise and unveiled a trade union reform bill designed to end closed shops, providing public funds for strike ballots and outlawing secondary picketing of the kind which had been widely seen during ‘the winter of discontent’. These measures would have been radical under any other government, but Thatcher complained that they did not go far enough. She wanted an end to all secondary action. She castigated him as a ‘false squire’, one of a class of Tories who…

have all the outward show of a John Bull – ruddy face, white hair, bluff manner – but inwardly they are political calculators who see the task of Conservatives as retreating gracefully before the Left’s inevitable advance.

In frustration, Thatcher suddenly announced that strikers would in future be assumed to be getting union strike pay and so would not qualify for social security. The battle lines were being clearly drawn.

Howe’s second budget in 1980 set out a Medium-Term Financial Strategy (MTFS) which contained detailed predictions about the growth of the money supply. But with inflation raging, a recession biting and credit restrictions loosened, it was impossible to enforce. The money supply was supposed to be growing at around eight per cent, but it actually grew at a rate of nineteen per cent. The monetarists were beginning to look foolish. Strike-ravaged, unproductive British Leyland came begging for yet more money but instead of closing it down or selling it off, Thatcher gave way, just as Heath had done when Rolls-Royce had tested his resolve not to give bail-outs. But whereas the latter had eventually thrived again, BL died. There was also a steel strike and though the government talked tough and stood firm, the eventual settlement was high and the unions were certainly not humiliated. By the second half of the year, unemployment was up by more than 800,000 and hundreds of manufacturing businesses were going bust, throttled by the rising exchange rate. Industrialists, who had looked to the Tories with great hope, now began to despair once more. Prices were up by twenty-two per cent in a year and wages by a fifth. At the Tory Conference of 1980, the dissidents within the cabinet and the Tory ‘left’ in Parliament who called for a ‘U-turn’ on the economy were dismissed by Thatcher in a phrase coined by the playwright Ronald Millar:

You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning!

The word ‘wet’ was a public schoolboy term of abuse describing a fellow pupil who was ‘soppy’ or weak. It was now being applied by monetarist Tories to their Heathite opponents. In the great Thatcher cabinet battles of the eighties, it was appropriated to refer particularly to the senior ministers who did not agree with her – Jim Prior, Francis Pym, Sir Ian Gilmour, Mark Carlisle, Norman St John Stevas, Peter Walker, Christopher Soames and (later) Michael Heseltine. Most of them were ‘wet’ in another sense – despite being in the majority, they were never prepared to act together to face her down, or even to resign individually on points of principle. The great confrontation would have come in 1981, with unemployment headed towards three million, new bankruptcies reported every day and the biggest collapse in manufacturing production in a single year since 1921. Howe planned to take another four billion out of the economy through a combination of swingeing cuts and rises in taxes. Thatcher told Alan Walters, her new economic adviser, that they may get rid of me for this but that it would be worth it for doing the right thing. On the streets, rioting seemed to be confirming all the worst fears of those who had predicted that monetarism would tear the country apart. But in ringing terms, Thatcher told the Tory Party faithful to stay calm and strong:

This is the road I am resolved to follow. This is the path I must go. I ask all who have spirit – the bold, the steadfast and the young at heart – to stand and join with me.

In April 1981, riots broke out in Brixton. Shops were burned and looted, streets barricaded and more than two hundred people, most of them police, were injured. Mrs Thatcher’s response was to pity the shopkeepers. Lord Scaman was asked to hold a public inquiry; but in the first week of July, trouble began again, this time in the heavily Asian west London suburb of Southall, with petrol-bombs, arson attacks and widespread pelting of the police. Then Toxteth in Liverpool erupted and the rioting there continued for two weeks. Black youths, then whites, petrol-bombed the police, waved guns and burned both cars and buildings. The police responded with CS gas, the first time it had been used on the streets of mainland Britain, and with baton charges. As in London, hundreds were injured and one man was killed. Toxteth was followed by outbreaks of looting and arson in Manchester’s Moss Side. With unemployment reaching sixty per cent among young blacks, and both Liverpool and Manchester having suffered badly from recent factory closures, many saw this a clearly linked to Thatcherite economics, what Denis Healey, now in opposition, was now calling ‘sado-monetarism’. Michael Heseltine went to Liverpool and came back calling for government money to bring in private investment, job creation schemes and a minister for Liverpool. He stuck with Liverpool for a year, helping to bring renovation projects and a morale-boosting garden festival which was attended by three million people. Thatcher herself drew very different conclusions from her visit to Liverpool:

I had been told that some of the young people involved got into trouble through boredom and not having enough to do. But you only had to look at the grounds of these houses with the grass untended, some of it almost waist-high, and the litter, to see this was a false analysis. They had plenty of constructive things to do if they wanted. Instead, I asked myself how people could live in such circumstances without trying to clear up the mess.

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The problem, she claimed, was lack of initiative and self-reliance created by years of dependency on the State, and compounded by the media. It was nothing whatsoever to do with monetarist policies. Her views remained unaltered as she then went on into full-scale battle with ‘the wets’. Howe planned another tight Budget for 1982, and, for the first time, there was something approximating a full-scale cabinet revolt. Heseltine warned of despair and electoral meltdown. Even monetarist true believers seemed to be deserting. Thatcher herself called it one of the bitterest arguments in a cabinet in her time. Drawing the meeting to a close, she decided to counter-attack. Four ministers were sacked, and Jim Prior was sent to Northern Ireland. She intervened to stop other ministers settling with public sector workers, even when it would have been cheaper to do so. She had kept the trade union leaders locked out. Len Murray (above), the impeccably moderate TUC chairman who had spent half the Wilson and Callaghan years sitting around the table with them, was allowed into Downing Street just three times in Mrs Thatcher’s first five years.

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In the summer of 1981, most of ‘England and Wales’ allowed itself to be distracted by the dramatic reversal in their Cricket team’s fortunes in the Home ‘Ashes’ series against Australia. A belligerent Ian Botham helped them to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat at Headingley, and we all began picking up bats and balls again. In 1982, I enjoyed a brief interlude as ‘the Ian Botham of Grangetown’ in my pub team, more for my inconsistency as an all-rounder, though I did get to make match-winning contributions on the practice pitches at Sophia Gardens.

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Above: In an interview with BBC correspondent, John Simpson

The best evidence of Mrs Thatcher’s belligerent style to date had been the struggle with the other European leaders to reclaim roughly a billion pounds a year of net British payments to the Community. In ‘Thatcher speak’, getting our money back involved an undiplomatic brawl that went on from Dublin to Luxembourg to Brussels. She would not shut up, or back down. Diplomats from all sides suggested interesting side-deals, trade-offs, honourable compromises, but she brushed them all aside. Ultimately, she got three-quarters of what she had first demanded, but, astonishingly, she then said ‘no’. It was only when all her entire cabinet were in favour of the settlement that she grudgingly agreed. The press and the country were beginning to notice her tenacity. Her ‘Bothamesque’ innings in Brussels was to come back to haunt her when she was ‘savaged’ by Geoffrey Howe’s cricketing metaphors in 1990, but until then, the civil war within the Labour Party had helped protect her from the electoral consequences of her shift from the centre-ground. The Tories might be hated, but Labour was unelectable.

(to be continued…)

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Britain Sixty Years Ago (VII): Between Two Worlds, 1958-63   Leave a comment

Notting Hill, 1958 and After: Pity the Poor Immigrant…?

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Just as in the time of the Blair-Brown administrations of a decade ago, sixty years ago it was not regarded as respectable to express concerns about immigration to Britain, much less to voice anti-immigrant feeling. At both ends of the fifty year period of general prosperity, the elite turned its eyes and ears away from the door-slamming and shunning, and escaped into well-meant, windy generalities about the brotherhood of man and fellow-citizens of the Crown, or more latterly vacuous epithets about celebrating a mythological multi-cultural Cool Britannia, a land at ease with itself.  Most of the hostility was at the level of street culture, mostly covert and casual but occasionally overtly aggressive and violent, organised or orchestrated by white gangs of ‘nigger-hunting’ Teddy boys and small groups of right-wing extremists. The main motivation seems to have been young male testosterone-led territory-marking.

 

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From Austerity to Affluence: Britain, 1945-64.

This all came to a head in 1958 with the Notting Hill riots, more an event which symbolised change than one of real, bloody slaughter. In reality, no-one was killed in the rampaging and, by the standards of later rioting, there was little physical damage to either people or property. The trouble actually started in the poor St Ann’s district of Nottingham and only spread to London’s Notting Hill a day later. On 18 August, the Times reported on the Nottingham fight between coloured and white people and how some Conservative MPs saw it as a red light warning of further troubles to come. They intended to renew their demand for control to be placed on immigration from the Commonwealth and the colonies when Parliament reassembled in October. Thirty of them had already signed a motion (never debated) during the previous session, which had expressed their disquiet over…

… the continuing influx of indigent immigrants from the Commonwealth and colonies, thousands of whom have immediately sought National Assistance.

Even before the outbreak of the riots at Notting Hill, Norman Pannell, Tory MP for the Kirkdale division of Liverpool and leader of this group, had tabled a similarly worded resolution on the agenda of their autumn Party Conference. Pannell had commented to the Times the previous day:

The Nottingham fighting is a manifestation of the evil results of the present policy and I feel that unless some restriction is imposed we shall create the colour-bar we all wish to avoid… The object of my representation is to get some control, not to bar all Commonwealth immigration, but to see that the immigrants shall not be a charge on public funds, and that they are deported when they are guilty of serious crimes.

Yet what happened at Notting Hill was a large and deeply unpleasant outbreak of anti-immigrant violence which ran for a total of six days, across two late summer weekends. It was no coincidence that Notting Hill was the area where the rioting happened as distinct from, say, Brixton, which also had a very large and visible black population by the mid-fifties. Notting Hill had the most open, well-known street culture for black people, with Soho on one side and the new BBC headquarters on the other. This sub-culture was also well-advertised and celebrated by hacks, broadcasters and novelists. Known for its gambling dens and drinking-clubs, it also had a resentful and impoverished white population and, more importantly, in the words of two historians of British immigration put it:

It had multi-occupied houses with families of different races on each floor. It had a large population of internal migrants, gypsies and Irish, many of them transient single men, packed into a honeycomb of rooms with communal kitchens, toilets and no bathrooms.

Into this honeycomb poured a crowd first of tens, and then of hundreds of white men, armed first with sticks, knives, iron railings and bicycle chains, and soon with petrol-bombs too. They were overwhelmingly young,  mostly from nearby areas of London, and looking for trouble. They began by picking on small groups of blacks caught out on the streets, beating them and chasing them. They then moved to black-occupied houses and began smashing windows. The crowds swelled out until they were estimated at more than seven hundred strong, whipped up by the occasional neo-fascist agitator, but much more directed by local whites. Racist songs and chants of ‘niggers out’, the smashing of windows – although some local whites protected and fought for their black neighbours – this was mob violence of a kind that Brits thought they had long left behind. They shrunk away again, however, at the sight of black men making a stand, and fighting back with petrol bombs. There were a hundred and forty arrests, mainly of white youths, and though far-right parties continued to organise in the area, there was no discernible electoral impact, or indeed any more serious trouble. The huge press coverage ensured, however, that Britain went through its first orgy of national naval-gazing about its liberalism and its immigration policy, while overseas racist régimes such as those of South Africa and Rhodesia mocked their hang-wringing British cousins.

After the riots, many black people did ‘go home’. Returns to the Caribbean soared to more than four thousand. There, West Indian governments expressed outrage at the riots and made it clear that there would be no action by them to restrict migration in order to appease lawless white thugs. The Commonwealth retained a loose association between Crown, obligation and common citizenship which felt real to politicians of both parties. Pressure to close the open border for Commonwealth citizens hardly increased in the Tory Party after the Notting Hill riots, though extra-parliamentary campaigns, such as the Birmingham Immigration Control Association, did spring up. Of course, given that the violence was directed against immigrants by whites, it would have been grossly unfair had the first reaction been to send people home. Labour was wholly against restricting immigration, arguing that it would be disastrous to our status within the Commonwealth. 

The Notting Hill Carnival, begun the following year, was an alternative response, celebrating black culture openly. For many black migrants, the riots marked the beginning of assertion and self-organisation. They were looked back on as a ‘racial Dunkirk’, the darkest moment after which the real fightback began. Even in the ‘darkest’ days of 1958, there was a lighter side to the popular street culture which those ‘journalists’ who dared or bothered to walk the same streets, discovered for themselves. An Irish informant told T R Fyvel, author of The Insecure Offenders (1961) that the excessive interest of Teddy Boys in their own and each other’s clothes and hair-styles revealed a basic effeminacy and nothing else:

If you look into the motive you will find it was largely jealousy… of the girls for being the centre of attention. They just couldn’t stand not having it all to themselves. If you had listened to these Teds as I did when they stood about in dance-halls, all you would hear about was clothes and style. One would say: “I paid seventeen guineas for this suit at so-and-so’s”, the other, “I paid this new Jew tailor nineteen guineas for mine.” They could talk literally for hours about styles and cut and prices, the way you usually only hear women talk. But even if they all weren’t effeminate, though I know some of them were, the main thing with these Teds was that they had to outshine the way the girls dressed by the way they themselves were dressed. The Teddy boy was always the person who had to stand out.

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Within the young British West Indian community, clothes and hair did not need to be of a certain cut or style at this time; it was the “patois” which had a special role as a token of identity. But it was not a simple role for newly arrived immigrants, as one Jamaican schoolgirl living in London explained the complicated social pressures that frowned on Jamaican Creole in Jamaica, but that made it almost obligatory in London:

It’s rather weird ‘cos when I was in Jamaica I wasn’t really allowed to speak it (Jamaican Creole) in front of my parents. I found it difficult in Britain at first. When I went to school I wanted to be like the others in order not to stand out. So I tried speaking the patois as well … You get sort of a mixed reception. Some people say, “You sound really nice, quite different.” Other people say, “You’re a foreigner, speak English. Don’t try to be like us, ‘cos you’re not like us.”

Despite this mixed reception from her British West Indian friends, she persevered with the patois, and, as she put it, “after a year, I lost my British accent, and was accepted.” But this was not, strictly speaking, Jamaican English. For many Caribbean visitors to Britain, the patois of Brixton and Notting Hill was of a stylised form that was not, as they heard it, truly Jamaican, not least because British West Indians had arrived from all over the Caribbean. Another British West Indian schoolgirl, who was born in Britain, was teased for her patois when she visited the Caribbean for the first time:

 I haven’t lived in Jamaica, right? But what I found  when I went out there was that when I tried to speak Jamaican (Creole) they laughed at me. They said I’m trying to copy them and I don’t sound right and that. They want me to speak as I speak now.

The experience convinced her that “in London, the Jamaicans have developed their own language in patois, sort of. ‘Cos they make up their own words in London, in, like, Brixton. And then it just develops into Patois as well.” By the early 1980s, investigators found that there were white children in predominantly black schools who used the British West Indian patois in order to be acceptable to the majority of their friends:

I was born in Brixton and I’ve been living here for seventeen years, and so I just picked it up from hanging around with my friends who are mainly black people. And so I can relate to them by using it, because otherwise I’d feel an outcast. 

On the other hand, the same schoolboy knew that the creole was something for a special set of circumstances:

But when I’m with someone else who I don’t know I try to speak as fluent English as possible. It’s like I feel embarrassed about it (the patois), I feel like I’m degrading myself by using it.

The unconscious racism of such comments points to the predicament faced by British black people. Not fully accepted, for all the rhetoric, by the established white community, they felt neither fully Caribbean nor fully British, even by the 1980s. This was the poignant outcome of what British black writer Caryl Phillips called, The Final Passage. Phillips came to Britain in the late 1950s himself, and was one of the first of his generation to grapple with the problem of finding a means of literary self-expression that was true to his experience:

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

His novel, The Final Passage, is narrated in Standard English, but the speech of the characters is obviously a rendering of nation language:

I don’t care what anyone tell you, going to England be good for it going raise your mind. For a West Indian boy like you just being there is an education, for you going see what England do for sheself … it’s a college for the West Indian.

The lesson of this college for the West Indian is, as Phillips put it, that symptomatic of the colonial situation, the language has been divided as well.

The new ‘youth’ styles of late-fifties Britain, expressing themselves partly, as almost everything else in the period did, in terms of consumption patterns, also indicated subtle shifts in attitude and outlook: but no-one changed their life-chances by becoming a Teddy Boy or Mod. It can’t be said that adult members of the official culture displayed much sympathy into either of the ‘dreams’, of freedom or recognition, that Ray Gosling gave voice to in the following extracts, first of all from the BBC Programme, It’s My Life, and secondly from his article Dream Boy, which appeared in the New Left Review of May/June 1960:

I remember coming out of the Elephant & Castle, the big theatre at the corner, the Trocadero, and it was after seeing the Bill Haley film, ‘Rock Around the Clock’, and we all went down the Old Kent Road, and at the end… all the fire engines were there, and they got their hoses all ready, and it was a… terrible big thing. You felt you were it. Not only because you were young, but you felt the rest of your lives would be, well, ordered by you and not ordered by other people. We felt we could do anything we bloody well wanted, … anything at all, nothing could stop you. You were the guv’ner – you were the king. The world was free – the world was open.

The dreamland is always, like the win on the pools, just around the corner. The man with the big cigar from up West who discovers The Boy, and buys him up, never arrives … The haze that surrounds the life of The Boy is a fog of fear, and not the mist about to rise on a dazzling dawn of success. He lives in Birmingham, not Hollywood, a dead Empire in a sunset world, yet still hopes that somehow, an Eden will pull off the trick, Super Mac will open those golden gates, and here along the M1 the orange trees of California will begin to blossom … And so this boy with everyone and everything against him, plays out his own private drama to the fuggy street, with his god on a chain round his neck, his girl clinging to his arm. Against all of them: in search of the heaven he sees on the glossy page, the screen, and the hoarding.

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When the BBC Radio Any Questions panel was asked to comment on the events surrounding the showing of Bill Haley’s Rock Around the Clock, Mary Stocks remarked that young people were merely exhibiting a sort of unexpended animal spirits; Lord Boothby, the newspaper proprietor and Conservative politician, expressed the view that he’d rather they all wet off to Cairo and started teddy-boying around there, while Jeremy Thorpe, the future Liberal Party leader, said that Jazz to me comes from the jungle and this is jungle music taken to its logical conclusion. This is musical Mau-Mau.

Meanwhile, back in ‘darkest’ Notting Hill, not long after the riots, the intrepid reporter, T R Fyvel, was being enlightened by a youth leader about the increased use of ‘the gramophone’. Re-invented as ‘the record-player’, they were far cheaper than ever before, and cheap vinyl records were mass-produced for the first time, adding to the international popularity of performers like Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Bill Hayley and the Comets, and Cliff Richard and the Shadows. Although cheap, they were beyond the pockets of most individual teenagers or their families, for whom the TV was still a greater priority, so youth clubs like that run by Fyvel’s informant became a means of ‘putting a roof over the street’ under which young people could share the listening experience:  

Record-players are the thing these days among the boys. You just don’t find a house without one; they’re just about taking the place of the telly, expensive ones, too. Television seems to mean little to the youngsters these days – the only thing they bother to watch is boxing and football – but it’s remarkable how well they know the records. Even little girls at the club will ask if we’ve got the latest hit, “Babyface” or something. Tunes are the one subject where you can be sure of getting them to talk.   

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However, for some young Britons, epitomised by Jimmy Porter, the character in Osborne’s 1956 play, Look Back in Anger, it was pretty dreary living in the American age, unless you’re an American, of course. The cold, statistical reality was that the number of British youths in the age-group seventeen to twenty-one convicted for violence against the person had risen to 2,051 in 1958, from 745 in 1954. By 1958 this new development was also apparent to the legal authorities. For example, in London and the Home Counties one magistrate after the other made comment on the fact that the criminal minority among young people had become noticeably much larger and more criminal. This increase in crime statistics was most alarming in the smaller towns and rural areas in the Home Counties. Noting that crime in Berkshire had risen by a third in the course of two years, the Chief Constable of that still largely rural county said, on 9th April 1958, that the average age of those responsible for burglary and other breaking-in offences was under twenty. In neighbouring Buckinghamshire, the Chairman of the Quarter Sessions, Lord Birkett remarked:

There are thirty-six prisoners and of these there are no less than twenty-two who are twenty-one and under: among these, one is nineteen, two are eighteen, seven are seventeen, and five are only sixteen. Everyone reviews such a state of affairs with a profound taste of dissatisfaction, in these days when so much is done for the care and protection of the young.

It’s difficult to isolate specific causes of these social trends, but one general cause may have been that there were no good ’causes’ left for most young working-class people to fight for. John Osborne, the controversial playwright, expressed this sense of aimlessness through one of his characters, Jimmy Porter, in Look Back in Anger:

I suppose people of our generation aren’t able to die for good causes any longer. We had all that done for us, in the thirties and forties, when we were still kids. There aren’t any good, brave courses left. If the big bang comes, and we all get killed off, it won’t be in aid of the old-fashioned grand design. It’ll just be for the Brave-New-nothing- very-much-thank-you. About as pointless and inglorious as stepping in front of a bus.

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Another cause of the increase in street-level violence and crime was the social alienation fuelled by the new vogue for high-rise flats, about which I have written in another post in this series. But, as the title of Osborne’s play reminds us, the fifties did see the rise of the Angry Young Men, and women, and led to the creation of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.  When the first ragged ranks of ‘CND’ swung into view on the first day of their march from London to Aldermaston in Berkshire, one Londoner, observing, commented to a radio reporter:

This must be a bunch of bloody psychotics, trying to extrovert their own psychic difficulties, you know, to neither end nor purpose. It’s like a bunch of tiny dogs yapping at the back door to the big house – it will accomplish sweet nothing.

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René Cutforth, the distinguished radio commentator and journalist, however, thought that the marchers might just be the only people left alive. Certainly, the shadow of what Jimmy Porter had called ‘the big bang’ lengthened across the whole face of ‘affluent Britain’ throughout this whole thirty-year period from the late fifties onward, and nothing the bunch of bloody psychotics, including myself, did could raise it an inch. Yet the ‘extra-parliamentary politics’ which so changed the face of political life in the western world in the succeeding decades, and which so powerfully crystallised the popular mood of protest and dissent against the enforced calm of ‘prosperous Britain’, had its beginnings here: it was fired in this highly respectable and law-abiding crucible. 

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The importance assigned to the Commonwealth in the fifties prevented the imposition of immigration controls on New Commonwealth citizens. Only after Macmillan’s 1959 general election victory did pressure really begin to build up for some kind of restriction on immigration to Britain. Opinion polls began to show increasing hostility to the open-door policy. Perhaps just as important, both the Ministry of Labour and the Home Office wanted a change to help deal with the new threat of unemployment. This was a case of the political class being pushed reluctantly into something which offended the notion of their place in the world, the father-figures of a global Commonwealth. One study of immigration points out that what was truly remarkable was the passive acceptance by politicians and bureaucrats of Britain’s transformation into a multicultural society:

Immigration was restricted a full four years after all measures of the public mood indicated clear hostility to a black presence in Britain, and even then it was only done with hesitation. 

However, by the 1960s, Britain’s retreat from the Commonwealth in favour of Europe and events such as the Notting Hill race riots in 1958 heralded a policy of restriction, which gradually whittled away the right of New Commonwealth citizens to automatic British citizenship. When, in 1962, the Commonwealth Immigrants Act finally passed into law, it was notably liberal, at least by later standards, assuming the arrival of up to forty thousand legal immigrants a year with the complete right of entry for their dependents.

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Even so, it had only gone through after a ferocious parliamentary battle, with the Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell making an emotional appeal and passionate attacks on a measure which was still privately opposed by some of the Tory ministers opposite him. One particularly contentious issue was that the Republic of Ireland was allowed a completely open border with Britain, which exists to this day. This may have seemed only practical politics given the huge number of Irish people living and working in Britain, but it offended in two ways. By discriminating in favour of a country which had been neutral in the war with Hitler and declared itself a republic, but against Commonwealth countries which had stood with Britain, it infuriated many British patriots. Secondly, by giving Irish people a better deal than Indians or West Indians it seemed frankly racialist.

Although the 1962 Immigration Act was intended to reduce the inflow of blacks and Asians into Britain, it had the opposite effect. The new law created a quota system which gave preference to skilled workers and those with firm promises of employment. In order to beat it, a huge new influx of people migrated to Britain in 1961, the biggest group from the Caribbean, but also almost fifty thousand from India and Pakistan and twenty thousand Hong Kong Chinese. Fearful of losing the right of free entry, in the eighteen months before the restrictions were introduced, the volume of newcomers equalled the total for the previous five years. One historian of immigration puts the paradox well: in the three-year period from 1960 to 1963, despite the intense hostility to immigration, …

… more migrants had arrived in Britain than had disembarked in the whole of the twentieth century up to that point. The country would never be the same again.

Back to the Future: A New Relationship with Europe?

After the Treaty of Rome took effect at the beginning of 1958, French attitudes towards future British membership of the European Economic Community hardened. General de Gaulle, who had felt humiliated by Churchill during the war, returned as President of France, too late to stop the new European system, which he had opposed on the basis of his ‘nation-statism’, from taking shape. He, therefore, determined that it should be dominated by France and made to serve French national interests. Macmillan, always a keen European, became worried. Various British plots intended to limit the six founders and hamper their project had failed. London had tried to rival the new Common Market with a group of the ‘excluded’ countries; Britain, Austria, Denmark, Portugal, Norway, Switzerland and Sweden, calling it the European Free Trade Association (EFTA).

‘The Seven’ as they called themselves, were nevertheless smaller in population than ‘the Six’ and were also more geographically scattered and far less united. Roy Jenkins, future Home Secretary and ardent pro-European, described EFTA as a foolish attempt to organise a weak periphery against a strong core. By 1959 Macmillan was worrying that,

… for the first time since the Napoleonic era, the major continental powers are united in a positive economic grouping, with considerable political aspects …

… which might cut Britain out of Europe’s main markets and decisions. In his diaries, he wrote of his alarm at the prospect of a boastful, powerful ‘Empire of Charlemagne’ – now under French, but bound to come under German control. There was much self-deception about the possible deal that could be struck, which would need to combine the sovereignty of the British Parliament and the interests of farmers throughout the Commonwealth with the protectionist system of the EEC. Macmillan was willing to sacrifice sovereignty if a deal could be reached. He might have seemed as safely steeped in tradition as country houses, but he had nothing like the reverence for the House of Commons felt by Enoch Powell or Hugh Gaitskell. But Gaitskell and the Labour Party had seriously underrated Macmillan from the outset of his premiership. In his Memoirs (1964), the Earl of Kilmuir wrote of him:

His calm confidence, courtesy and sharpness in debate, his quick-wittedness under pressure, and, above all, his superb professionalism, unnerved and disconcerted his opponents until he secured a quite astonishing psychological superiority in the Commons. Gaitskell never quite succeeded in getting Macmillan’s measure, and his ponderous tactics gave the Prime Minister a series of opportunities which he did not miss…

He imparted confidence to his colleagues and the Party in Parliament, and their confidence spread to the constituencies. It was a remarkable example of how a political revival must start from the top. 

… Macmillan’s refusal to have an ‘inner Cabinet’ of a few intimate friends was a source of strength and not of weakness. Imperturbable, hard-working, approachable, and courageous; he exercised a personal domination over his colleagues not seen in British politics since Churchill’s wartime administration. If it is alleged that Macmillan was singularly lucky after 1958, no man deserved it more. He led the country out of the bitter-black aftermath of Suez, gave them the unflurried leadership for which they craved, and proved himself a worthy successor to Churchill.

In the early sixties, the battle over Britain’s sovereignty, which was to dominate its internal politics for the next sixty years, was postponed because British entry was ruthlessly and publicly blocked. President De Gaulle was due to come to Britain for talks and told the Prime Minister that, rather than visit Downing Street, he would prefer to come to his private home, Birch Grove in Sussex. The two men had worked closely together during the war in North Africa and De Gaulle was grateful to Macmillan personally for his support when, as leader of the Free French, Roosevelt and Churchill had wanted to kick him out of the French government-in-exile which was being formed in advance of liberation. However, De Gaulle had also left North Africa more than ever convinced of the danger to France of a coming Anglo-American alliance which would soon try to dominate the world.

Following a series of domestic disputes at Birch Grove, the two men exchanged blunt views. Macmillan argued that European civilization was threatened from all sides and that if Britain was not allowed to join the Common Market, he would have to review everything, including keeping British troops in Germany. If De Gaulle wanted an “empire of Charlemagne” it would be on its own. The French President replied that he didn’t want Britain to bring in its “great escort” of Commonwealth countries – the Canadians and Australians were no longer Europeans; Indian and African countries had no place in the European system, and he feared Europe being “drowned in the Atlantic”. In short, he simply did not believe that Britain would ditch its old empire; and if it did, he thought it would be a Trojan horse for the Americans.

These seem like formidable objections, points of principle that should have been as a clear warning. Yet the detailed and exhaustive talks about British entry dragged on despite them. Edward Heath made sixty-three visits to Brussels, Paris and other capitals, covering fifty thousand miles as he haggled and argued. By then Macmillan was a fast-fading figure. A natural intriguer who had risen to power on the bloodied back of Eden, he was obsessed by possible political coups against him, and increasingly worried about the state of the economy. He was failing in Europe and looked old when seen alongside the young President Kennedy. Even a master illusionist like Macmillan had to face political reality.

The illusion with the most profound consequences was the economic one. In his 1958 book, The Affluent Society, J K Galbraith intended to sketch an outline of a developed society which had in large part solved the problem of production and would concentrate its energies on the challenges of distribution and redistribution. The class struggle was obsolete, so also were the ideologies which sought to justify it. Politics would no longer involve large general choices but disagreement over more limited and piecemeal issues. Uncritical transference of Galbraith’s thesis into the British context helped obscure the fact that Britain had not, in fact, solved its economic problems. The optimism of the early 1950s was perfectly understandable, but this miracle was built on temporary and fortuitous circumstances.

From 1955, Britain was bedevilled by a series of sterling crises which gradually forced upon the attention of politicians problems they wished to avoid. In 1955, when, as a result of a Government-assisted boom in industrial development, demand began to run ahead of capacity and the economy became over-strained, R. A. Butler, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, deliberately pushed up by raising purchase tax on a wide range of goods, and at the same time a number of measures were taken to discourage capital investment. Butler’s policy was followed by his two successors at the Treasury and only reversed at the onset of the recession in 1958. By then, the policy had eventually succeeded in slowing down the pace of wage increases, one of the major factors behind the 1955 inflation. But it took nearly three years to do so, at the cost of a virtually complete standstill and a number of financial crises and major industrial disputes.

One particularly unfortunate aspect of this period was the Government’s attempts to restrict investment in the public sector, an attempt which was largely unsuccessful because of the long-term nature of most of the projects involved, which made it quite impossible to turn them on and off like a tap to meet the short-term fluctuations in the economy.  If, by the time he made his famous election speech in 1959, Macmillan’s illusion of continuing affluence was already unsupported by the economic evidence, by the time he gave his interview to the Daily Mail in 1961, the claim that… We’ve got it good: Let’s keep it good was well past its ‘sell-by date’. As Sked and Cook (1979) pointed out in their reflections on the ‘Thirteen Wasted Years’, the Tories had, in fact, done very little in their fiscal policies from 1951-64, to pay attention to Britain’s sluggish economic growth or the problems created by the country’s superficial prosperity:

  … the Government sat back and did nothing in the belief that there was nothing to do, and for most of the time their energy was devoted  to maintaining Britain as a world power whatever the cost to the economy … 

Moreover, Tory economic complacency ensured that the necessary economic growth would never be generated. Not enough money was channelled into key industries; stop-go policies undermined the confidence of industry to invest in the long-term, and too much money was spent on defence…

With the economic crises of the early 1960s … it began to be apparent that Tory affluence would soon come to an end. The scandals of the Macmillan era merely served to reinforce the impression that a watershed had been reached in the country’s history and foreign affairs seemed to reach another lesson…  

In 1962 US Secretary of State Dean Acheson said that Britain has lost an empire: she has not yet found a role. The failure to rethink her world role was as evident in diplomacy as in economics. Macmillan foresaw and expedited the final liquidation of Empire, but he had few ideas about what to put in its place. The special relationship with the United States was to remain the cornerstone of British policy. But without the Empire, the relationship was bound to become one of master and servant. These illusions blinded Macmillan to the far-reaching changes occurring in Europe.

After a further unpopular budget in the spring of 1962, Macmillan drafted an alternative policy based on more planning and decided to sack his Chancellor, Selwyn Lloyd. The news was leaked to the papers, and over a brutal and panicky twenty-four hours in July, Macmillan expanded the circle of his sackings more widely, in what became known as the Night of the Long Knives. Macmillan called in and dismissed a third of his cabinet ministers from their jobs without notice. Macmillan’s own official biographer described it as an act of carnage unprecedented in British political history. However, compared with more recent cabinet ‘re-shuffles’ which happen with far greater frequency, many of those sacked then deserved to lose their jobs.

In November, Macmillan returned to his arguments with De Gaulle. This time, he went to France, to the grand chateau of Rambouillet, south of Paris, a venue used by French Presidents for summits as well as for holidays. After a round of pheasant-shooting, de Gaulle expressed his objections to British EEC membership even more aggressively. If Britain wanted to choose Europe, it would have to cut its special ties with the United States. At one point, Macmillan broke down in tears of frustration at the General’s intransigence, leading de Gaulle to comment later to his cabinet:

This poor man , to whom I had nothing to give, seemed so sad, so beaten that I wanted to put my hand on his shoulder and say to him, as in the Edith Piaf song, “Ne pleurez pas, milord”.

Cruel or not, it was a significant moment for Macmillan, for the Tories and for Britain. When, a few months later, in early 1963, De Gaulle’s “Non” was abruptly announced in a Paris press conference, it caused huge offence in Britain. A visit to Paris by Princess Margaret was cancelled. At the England-France rugby international at Twickenham a few days later, England won six-five. The captain of the English team had assured Ted Heath, the failed negotiator, that he had had a word with the team before the game, telling them…

… this was an all-important game. Everyone knew what I meant and produced the necessary …

Macmillan himself bitterly recorded in his diary that the French always betray you in the end. 

 

Sources:

Theo Baker (ed., 1978), The Long March of Everyman. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

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

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

Asa Briggs, Joanna Bourke et. al. (eds., 2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Robert McCrum, William Cran & Robert MacNeil (1986), The Story of English. Harmonsworth: Penguin Books.

Andrew Marr (2007), A History of Modern Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Britain Sixty Years Ago (VI): Immigration and the Myths of Integration   1 comment

Recent debates about migration to Britain from Eastern Europe, the Mediterranean and elsewhere are somewhat reminiscent of those which began to be heard in the late fifties in British politics. From 1948 to 1962, there was a virtually open door for immigrants coming into Britain from the remaining colonies and the Commonwealth. The British debate over immigration up to about 1957, the year I was added to the natural increase statistics of Nottinghamshire, had been characterised by contradiction and paradox. On the one hand, overt ‘racialism’ had been discredited by the Nazi persecutions, and Britain’s identity was tied up in its identity as the vanquishing angel of a political culture founded on racial theories and their practices. This meant that the few remaining unapologetic racialists, the anti-Semitic fringe and the pro-apartheid colonialists were considered outcasts from civilised discourse. Official documents from the period describe the handful of handful of MPs who were outspokenly racialist as ‘nutters’. Oswald Mosley, who would have been a likely puppet prime minister had Hitler’s plans for invading Britain succeeded, was let out of prison after the war and allowed to yell at his small band of unrepentant fascist supporters, such was the lack of threat he posed to the King’s peace. The public propaganda of Empire and Commonwealth instead made much of the concept of a family of races cooperating together under the Union flag.

In Whitehall, the Colonial Office strongly supported the right of black Caribbean people to migrate to the Mother Country, fending off the worries of the Ministry of Labour about the effects of unemployment during economic downturns. When some five hundred immigrants had arrived from the West Indies on the converted German troopship, SS Windrush, in 1948, the Home Secretary had declared that though some people feel it would be a bad thing to give the coloured races of the Empire the idea that… they are the equals of the people of this country… we recognise the right of the colonial peoples to be treated as men and brothers of the people of this country. Successive governments, Labour and Tory, saw Britain as the polar opposite of Nazi Germany, a benign and unprejudiced island which was connected to the modern world. The Jewish migration of the late thirties and forties had brought one of the greatest top-ups of skill and energy that any modern European state had ever seen. In addition, the country already had a population of about seventy-five thousand black and Asian people at the end of the war, and Labour shortages suggested that it needed many more. The segregation of the American Deep South and the development of apartheid policies in South Africa were regarded with high-minded contempt.

However, while pre-war British society had never been as brutal about race as France or Spain, never mind Germany, it was still riddled with racialism from top to bottom. In places like Coventry, there had been a good deal of prejudice against the Welsh, Irish and Indian migrants who had arrived in large numbers from the mid-thirties onwards. This continued after the war, with coloured workers, in particular, being kept in low-paid factory jobs by foremen and union shop-stewards alike. Although the small wartime community in the city had expanded to an estimated four thousand by 1954, this was still a relatively small number compared with white migrants from elsewhere in the Commonwealth, especially Ireland, as can be seen in the tables below:

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The sub-continental ethnic minority communities were described by many contemporary Coventrians as quiet and peace-loving, ‘colonising’ some of the more rundown housing stock along the Foleshill Road to the north of the city. Like other migrants in Coventry at the time, the Indian minorities were anxious to protect their own culture and identity. As early as 1952, the City Council had granted Pakistani Muslims land for separate burial facilities and for the building of a Mosque. Despite being relatively few in number, Coventry’s Indian and Pakistani communities were, however, not immune from the sort of racial prejudice which was beginning to disfigure Britain nationally, especially the barbs directed at the Caribbean communities. Estate agents in Coventry began to operate a colour bar in October 1954, following the following editorial in the Coventry Standard, the weekly local newspaper:

The presence of so many coloured people in Coventry is becoming a menace. Hundreds of black people are pouring into the larger cities of Britain including Coventry and are lowering the standard of life. They live on public assistance and occupy common lodging houses to the detriment of suburban areas… They frequently are the worse for liquor – many of them addicted to methylated spirits – and live in overcrowded conditions sometimes six to a room. 

These were not the outpourings of a bigoted correspondent, but the major editorial, the like of which had appeared in local newspapers before the War, questioning the arrival in the city of the sweepings of the nation, in reference to the destitute miners whom my grandfather helped to find accommodation and work in the Walsgrave and Binley areas on the outskirts of the city. But these new stereotypes, though just as inaccurate, were far more virulent, and could not be so easily counteracted and contradicted by people who appeared so different from, and therefore to, the native Coventrians. The reality, of course, was at variance from this obvious conflation of the Caribbean and Asian minorities.  The former was an even smaller minority in Coventry than the latter, amounting to only 1,200 even by 1961, and the idea of alcoholic or methylated Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus staggering along the Foleshill Road stemmed from a complete ignorance of other religious and ethnic cultures, even when compared with other prejudicial statements of the time.

Although the Standard‘s editor may have been conscious of the housing pressures in neighbouring Birmingham, the vision of black people pouring into cities throughout Britain was, again, a clear exaggeration, especially for the early fifties. This can only be explained by the observation that ‘racialism’ seems to have infected a wide spectrum of Coventry society at this time, including the engineering trade unions. The Census of 1961 below showed that immigration from the new Commonwealth over the previous ten years had been a trickle rather than a stream, accounting for only 1.5 per cent of the population. The local population was increasing by approximately four thousand per year between 1951 and 1966,  but the proportion of this attributable to general migration declined dramatically over these fifteen years. Between 1951 and 1961 a Department of the Environment survey estimated that migration accounted for 44.5 per cent of population growth in what it referred to as the Coventry belt (presumably, this included the nearby urbanised towns and villages of north and east Warwickshire).

In many areas of the country in the early fifties, white working-class people hardly ever came across anyone of another colour after the black GIs returned home. Neither were Polish and Eastern European migrants free from discrimination, although their white skins were more welcome. As with the Welsh and Irish migrants before them, the prejudice against the wartime Polish immigrants ensured a high level of community participation, strengthening the need for ethnic identification and compensatory status, reinforcing minority group solidarity and building the Polish community into a social entity. These conditions defined the ethnic vitality of the community, giving shape to its social, religious, economic and political life, in addition to enabling it to meet every need of Polish immigrants in Britain. By the end of the next decade, it could be observed that:

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 500 are practising in Britain or dentist (80 Polish dental services), have a Polish priest and be buried by a Polish undertaker.

Anti-Semitism also remained common in the popular literature of the 1950s, and the actual practices of the British upper middle classes towards ordinary Jewish communities remained, as they had done before the war, close to the colour bar practised by Americans. Before the war, Jewish working people had been barely tolerated as servants and shopkeepers. The centres of Yiddish-speaking in London until the early 1950s were the East End districts of Whitechapel, Aldgate, Spitalfields and Stepney (the latter subsequently formed part of the larger borough of Tower Hamlets, which was widely populated by the Bangladeshi community from the 1980s). The influential major Jewish school in the East End, the Jews’ Free School, which had up to five thousand pupils in the early 1900s, saw itself as a citadel of anglicisation through to the 1950s, since Yiddish was regarded, not as a language in its own right, but as a corrupt form of German, itself still labelled as the language of the corrupt and oppressive Nazi regime. Even before the Second World War, irrespective of their attitudes towards religion, many Zionist groups throughout Europe had promoted Hebrew and stressed their rejection of Yiddish as the product of the Diaspora. Popular Jewish youth clubs in Britain, in common cause with the schools, had also promoted anglicisation and had also been highly successful in producing a generation oriented towards sports, dancing and mainstream British leisure pursuits.

Nevertheless, there also remained substantial Yiddish-speaking immigrant communities in Manchester, Leeds and Glasgow. The fundamentalist, or Orthodox communities, had already established themselves in the Stamford and Stoke Newington areas of Greater London before the Second World War, but it was not until after the war that these communities grew to significant sizes. For many of them, continuing to speak Yiddish, rather than using the modern Hebrew of Israel after 1948, was an act of defiance towards Zionism. It was therefore not surprising that, as early as the 1950s, it was a very common response of both first and second generation British Jews from the mainstream communities to deny all knowledge of Yiddish. Of those who did, only a tiny minority would be heard using it in public, even as late as the early 1980s, though that decade also, later, saw an enormous increase in Yiddish.

In the mid-1940s to mid-1950s, the numbers of Ashkenazi Jews were swollen by a significant proportion of the relatively few Holocaust survivors who were allowed to settle in Britain and still further boosted by some hundreds of Hungarian Jews who left Hungary after the 1956 Uprising, after which they suffered further persecution from the Kádár regime. I have written extensively, elsewhere on this site, about the Hungarian refugees who arrived in Britain in the winter and spring of 1956-57, and we know that of the 200,000 who fled Hungary during those months, some 56,000 were officially admitted to the UK. Of course, in addition to the Jews who had already settled in London and Manchester, these latest arrivals were from all religions and classes in Hungary, not just the élite army officers, landowners and capitalists who had fled the Fascism of the Horthy and Szalási regimes, but all those fearing repression and reprisals, or seizing the opportunity to seek a higher standard of living in western Europe.  Among them were many of Jewish origin who had converted to Protestantism or Catholicism, along with the original adherents of those religions. The fifty-six exiles comprised a wide range of landless peasants, unskilled workers, craftsmen, professionals and entrepreneurs.

Marika Sherwood emigrated first to Australia as a ten-year-old in 1948 with her parents and grandparents. She quickly learnt English and easily assimilated into school life. She was briefly married to an Australian, but her amorphous yearning for Europe led to her re-migration to London, where she formed a circle of native British friends since she knew almost no Hungarians. Although returning to Hungary for regular visits to relatives, her Hungarian was English-accented and of the ‘kitchen’ variety. While her son maintained an interest in Hungary, he spoke only a few words of Hungarian, and his wife and friends were all English. Marika’s roundabout route to Britain was far from typical of the Hungarian exiles there who left their native land in the late forties and fifties, but her rapid assimilation into English life certainly was so. Unlike the Poles, the Hungarians did not establish separate support networks or religious and cultural institutions, though at the height of the exodus the Hungarian Embassy sponsored nine British-Hungarian associations. The oldest one, in London, was founded in 1951 and conducted its meetings in English. In the following twenty years, its membership dropped by half, from 150 to 75. In one area the membership included only ‘fifty-sixers’, as earlier immigrants either died or moved away, but in two others there were remnants of earlier migrations. Marika Sherwood’s concluding remarks are perhaps the most significant in her account, in that they draw attention, not so much to discrimination faced by immigrants among their hosts, but to the lack of attention paid by ‘the British’ to questions of migration, assimilation and integration:

The British myopia regarding immigration has prevented researchers recognising that some more general questions regarding the absorption and assimilation of immigrants have to be answered before we can begin to understand reactions to Black immigrants or the responses of Black peoples to such host reactions. We need to know the ramifications of meaning behind the lack of hyphenated Britons. We need to know if there are pressures to lose one’s ‘foreignness’ and how these pressures operate. We need to know what the indicators are of this ‘foreignness’ and how these pressures operate. We need to know what the indicators are of this ‘foreignness’ and which indicators the natives find least tolerable – and why. When we know more we might be able to deal more successfully with some aspects of the racism  which greeted and continues to greet Black immigrants. 

The fact remains that almost as soon as the first post-war migrants had arrived from Jamaica and the other West Indian islands, popular papers were reporting worries about their cleanliness, sexual habits and criminality: ‘No dogs, No blacks, No Irish’ was not a myth, but a perfectly common sign on boarding houses. The hostility and coldness of native British, particularly in the English towns and cities, was quickly reported back by the early migrants. Even Hugh Dalton, a member of the Labour cabinet in 1945-51, talked of the polluting poverty-stricken, diseased nigger communities of the African colonies. Perhaps, therefore, we should not act quite so surprised that such attitudes still continue to fall as readily from the lips of Labour as well as Tory politicians in the twenty-first century as they did sixty years ago.

Even then, in the mid-fifties, questions of race were obscure and academic for most people, as the country as a whole remained predominantly white. Until at least a decade later, there were only small pockets of ‘coloured’ people in the poorer inner-city areas. There were debates in the Tory cabinets of Churchill, Eden and Macmillan, but most of them never got anywhere near changing immigration policy. Any legislation to limit migration within the Commonwealth would have also applied to the white people of the old dominions too, or it would have been clearly and unacceptably based on racial discrimination. In the fifties, conservatives and socialists alike regarded themselves as civilized and liberal on race, but still showed a tendency to pick and choose from different parts of the Empire and Commonwealth. For instance, the Colonial Office specifically championed the skilled character and proven industry of the West Indians over the unskilled and largely lazy Indians. Immigration from the Indian subcontinent had begun almost immediately after its independence and partition, as a result of the displacement of both Hindus and Muslims, but it had been small in scale.

Sikhs, mainly from the Punjab, had also arrived in Britain, looking for work in the west London borough of Southall, which quickly became a hub of the subcontinent. Indian migrants created their own networks for buying and supplying the corner shops which required punishingly long hours, and the restaurants which had almost instantly become part of the ‘British’ way of life. By 1970 there were more than two thousand Indian (especially Punjabi) restaurants, and curry became the single most popular dish in the UK within the following generation. Other migrants went into textile production and the rag trade, growing relatively rich compared with most of their British ‘neighbours’, who were (perhaps naturally enough) somewhat jealous of the people they viewed as ‘newcomers’.

So immigration continued through the fifties without any great debate. Much of it was not black but European, mostly migrant workers from Ireland, Poland, Hungary, Italy, France and other countries who were positively welcomed during the years of skill and manpower shortages. There was a particularly hefty Italian migration producing a first-generation Italian-speaking community of around a hundred thousand by 1971, adding to earlier immigration going back to the 1870s, and even as far back as the 1400s. Migrants who moved to the UK before the Second World War settled in different parts of Britain, including the south Wales valleys, where they set up bracchi shops selling coffee, ice cream and soda among other goods. Their links within the catering trade and subsequent competition encouraged dispersion. Chain migration led to the settlement of groups coming from the same area in particular locations, similar to the patterns experienced by Welsh migrants to England in the inter-war period.

After 1945, the destination for the mass-recruited Italian migrants, coming almost exclusively from the rural areas in southern Italy, were towns where industrial settlements required unskilled labour, like the brick-making industries of Bedford and Peterborough, or rural areas needing labour for agriculture. In later decades, as Italian migration to Britain declined, the proportion of migrants from the centre and north of Italy increased at the expense of that from the impoverished south. Areas associated with the mass recruitment of the 1950s witnessed the formation of close-knit communities of people whose personal histories were similar, who came from the same region or neighbouring regions, often from the same village. The home dialects were often mutually intelligible and therefore played a great role in community interaction. It was often a crystallised form of dialect, that, outside its natural environment, did not follow the same evolution as the dialect back home. Instead, these dialects were heavily loaded with English borrowings. Even something as simple as a ‘cup of tea’ was usually offered in English, as it represented a habit acquired in the new environment.

Throughout the 1950s, there was constant and heavy migration from Ireland, mainly into the construction industry, three-quarters of a million in the early fifties and two million by the early seventies, producing little political response except in the immediate aftermath of IRA bombings. There was substantial Maltese immigration which caught the public attention for a time due to the violent gang wars in London between rival Maltese families in the extortion and prostitution business (many of them were originally Sicilian). In addition, there were many ‘refugees’ from both sides of the Greek-Turkish Cypriot conflict, including one of my best friends in Birmingham, a second-generation Greek Cypriot whose family owned a restaurant in their adopted city and continued to attend Orthodox services. Again, apart from the enthusiastic adoption of plate-smashing and moussaka-throwing in such restaurants, there was little discernible public concern.

The first sizeable Greek Cypriot group arrived in the inter-war years and was composed of young men in search of education and work. On the outbreak of the Second World War, most of them were conscripted as ‘overseas nationals’ and served as British soldiers in various parts of the world. After the war, more significant numbers of Greek Cypriot men arrived, followed by their families as soon as they had found a permanent job and suitable housing. The 1955-60 Independence struggle gave rise to further immigration to Britain, as did the subsequent struggles and invasions. By the 1980s, the Greek Cypriot population in Britain had reached two hundred thousand. Although there were small Greek communities in Birmingham, Glasgow and Manchester, by far the largest proportion of the Greek speech community was concentrated in London. In the national context, the numbers of Greeks was relatively small. Within the capital, however, Greeks formed a significant minority, and the number of recorded Greek-speakers there only began to decrease in the 1980s, though still constituting one of the largest bilingual groups in Inner London schools.

Greek Cypriots, although leaving behind a sometimes bloody conflict, left their island homes mainly as economic migrants. The majority of them came from lower socio-economic groups, setting out with high aspirations, confident about their hard-working nature and grounded in the strong sense of solidarity binding them to their compatriots. Once in Britain, they worked mainly in the service sector, in catering, hairdressing and grocery-retailing, as well as in the clothing and shoe manufacturing industries. In the villages of Cyprus, most women’s work had been confined to the household and the fields. In Britain, though still undervalued and underpaid, a substantial number of women went to work in the clothing industry, either as machinists in small family run factories or as out-workers sewing clothes at home at piece-work rates.

Mother-tongue teaching was provided by the Greek Orthodox Church in the early 1950s. Increasingly, however, this role was taken over by various parents’ groups. The longest-standing of these is the Greek Parents’ Association in Haringey, which dates back to 1955. Other parts of London and the country slowly took their lead from this, and classes were established in Coventry in 1963, and much later, in 1979, in Bradford. Children spent between one and four hours per week in these community-run classes, with the average attendance in the region of three hours. A pressing issue in these classes has been the place of the Cypriot dialect. While parents wanted their children to learn standard modern Greek (SMG), many British-trained teachers felt that the Cypriot dialect should also have a place as a medium of instruction.

Migration from Turkey and Cyprus followed very different patterns. Cypriot settlement preceded emigration from Turkey, dating back to the 1950s when the British government was actively seeking labour. In the 1960s, the birth of the Republic of Cyprus and the subsequent fighting between Greek and Turkish communities further encouraged migration to Britain, often in a bid to gain entry before the enactment of increasingly stringent immigration legislation. With the occupation of the northern part of the island by Turkey in 1974, a further nine thousand Greek and Turkish Cypriot refugees fled to Britain. It is impossible to tell how many of these came from each ethnic group since only place of birth information was recorded on settlement in the UK, not ethnic identity. Migration from Turkey itself only began in the 1970s. Cypriot Turkish has traditionally been accorded low status, often dismissed as ‘incorrect’ or as ‘pidgin Turkish’, although Turkish Cypriots have defended the legitimacy of their own variety and, since 1974, have resisted linguistic assimilation from mainland Turkey. 

Chinese migration, mainly from the impoverished agricultural hinterland of Hong Kong, can be measured by the vast rise in Chinese fish-and-chip shops, takeaways and restaurants since the mid-fifties, when there were a few hundred, to more than four thousand by the beginning of the seventies. Their owners were speakers of the Cantonese dialect.

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A Jamaican immigrant seeking lodgings in Birmingham in 1955

Thus, if there were clear rules about how to migrate quietly to Britain, they would have stated first, ‘be white’, and second, ‘if you can’t be white, be small in number’, and third, ‘if all else fails, feed the brutes’. The West Indian migration, at least until the mid-eighties, failed each rule. It was mainly male, young and coming not to open restaurants but to work for wages which could, in part, be sent back home. Some official organisations, including the National Health Service and London Transport, went on specific recruiting drives for drivers, conductors, nurses and cleaners, with advertisements in Jamaica. Most of the population shift, however, was driven by the migrants themselves, desperate for a better life, particularly once the popular alternative migration to the USA was closed down in 1952. The Caribbean islands, dependent on sugar or tobacco for most employment, were going through hard times. As word was passed back about job opportunities, albeit in difficult surroundings, immigration grew fast to about 36,000 people a year by the late fifties. The scale of the change was equivalent to the total non-white population of 1951 arriving in Britain every two years. The black and Asian population rose to 117,000 by 1961. Although these were still comparatively small numbers, from the first they were concentrated in particular localities, rather than being dispersed. Different West Indian island groups clustered in different parts of London and the English provincial cities – Jamaicans in the south London areas of Brixton and Clapham,  Trinidadians in west London’s Notting Hill, islanders from Nevis in Leicester, people from St Vincent in High Wycombe, and so on.

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405,000 people from the Caribbean migrated to Britain between 1948 and 1958, mostly single men.

The means and manners by which these people migrated to Britain had a huge impact on the later condition of post-war society and deserves special, detailed analysis. The fact that so many of the first migrants were young men who found themselves living without wives, mothers and children inevitably created a wilder atmosphere than they were accustomed to in their island homes. They were short of entertainment as well as short of the social control of ordinary family living. The chain of generational influence was broken at the same time as the male strut was liberated. Drinking dens and gambling, the use of marijuana, ska and blues clubs were the inevitable results. Early black communities in Britain tended to cluster where the first arrivals had settled, which meant in the blighted inner cities. There, street prostitution was more open and rampant in the fifties than it was later so that it is hardly surprising that young men away from home for the first time often formed relationships with prostitutes, and that some became pimps themselves. This was what fed the popular press hunger for stories to confirm their prejudices about black men stealing ‘our women’. The upbeat, unfamiliar music, illegal drinking and drugs and the sexual appetites of the young immigrants all combined to paint a lurid picture of a new underclass.

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In the 1960s, women and children joined their men: 328,000 more West Indians settled in Britain.

More important in the longer-term, a rebelliousness was sown in black families which would be partly tamed only when children and spouses began to arrive in large numbers in the sixties, and the Pentecostal churches reclaimed at least some of their own, sending out their gospel groups to entertain as well as evangelise among the previously lily-white but Welsh-immigrant-led nonconformist chapels in the early seventies. Housing was another crucial part of the story. For the immigrants of the fifties, accommodation was necessarily privately rented, since access to council homes was based on a long list of existing residents. So the early black immigrants, like the earlier immigrant groups before them, were cooped up in crowded, often condemned Victorian terrace properties in west London, Handsworth in west Birmingham, or the grimy back-streets of Liverpool and Leeds.

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Landlords and landladies were often reluctant to rent to blacks. Once a few houses had immigrants in them, a domino effect would clear streets as white residents sold up and shipped out. The 1957 Rent Act, initiated by Enoch Powell, in his free-market crusade, perversely made the situation worse by allowing rents to rise sharply, but only when tenants of unfurnished rooms were removed to allow for furnished lettings. Powell had intended to instigate a period during which rent rises could be cushioned, but its unintended consequence was that unscrupulous landlords such as the notorious Peter Rachman, himself an immigrant, bought up low-value properties for letting, ejecting the existing tenants and replacing them with new tenants, packed in at far higher rents. Thuggery and threats generally got rid of the old, often elderly, white tenants, to be replaced by the new black tenants who were desperate for somewhere to live and therefore prepared to pay the higher rents they were charged. The result was the creation of instant ghettos in which three generations of black British would soon be crowded together. It was the effects of Powell’s housing policies of the fifties which led directly to the Brixton, Tottenham, Toxteth and Handsworth riots of the eighties.

 

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Yet these were not, of course, the only direct causes of the racial tensions and explosions which were to follow. The others lay in the reactions of the white British, or rather the white English. One Caribbean writer claimed, with not a touch of irony, that he had never met a single English person with colour prejudice. Once he had walked the entire length of a street, and everyone told me that he or she ‘ad no prejudice against coloured people. It was the neighbour who was stupid. If only we could find the “neighbour” we could solve the whole problem. But to find ‘im is the trouble. Neighbours are the worst people to live beside in this country. Numerous testimonies by immigrants and in surveys of the time show how hostile people were to the idea of having black or Asian neighbours. The trades unions bristled against blacks coming in to take jobs, possibly at lower rates of pay, just as they had complained about Irish or Welsh migrants a generation earlier. Union leaders regarded as impeccably left-wing lobbied governments to keep out black workers. For a while, it seemed that they would be successful enough by creating employment ghettos as well as housing ones, until black workers gained a toe-hold in the car-making and other manufacturing industries where the previous generations of immigrants had already fought battles for acceptance against the old craft unionists and won.

Only a handful of MPs campaigned openly against immigration. Even Enoch Powell would, at this stage, only raise the issue in private meetings, though he had been keen enough, as health minister, to make use of migrant labour. The anti-immigrant feeling was regarded as not respectable, not something that a decent politician was prepared to talk about. For the Westminster élite talked in well-meaning generalities of the immigrants as being fellow subjects of the Crown. Most of the hostility was at the level of the street and popular culture, usually in the form of disguised discrimination of shunning, through to the humiliation of door-slamming and on to more overtly violent street attacks.

White gangs of ‘Teddy boys’, like the one depicted below, went ‘nigger-hunting’ or ‘black-burying’, chalking Keep Britain White on walls. Their main motivation stemmed, not from any ideological influence, but from a sense of young male competition and territory-marking. They were often the poor white children of the remaining poor white tenants in the same areas being ‘taken over’ by the migrants.  As the black British sociologist, Stuart Hall, has written, in the ‘society of affluence’,  which threw up paradoxical signals, it was easy to project the problems which life presented into simple and stereotyped remedies, as was demonstrated by the following respondent to a BBC radio enquiry of the late fifties:

It is getting too bad now. They’re too many in the country and they’re over-running it. If they come into this country, they should be made to live to the same standards as we live, and not too many in their house as they always have done, unless someone puts their foot down. They bring in diseases and all sorts of things that spread to different people, and your children have to grow up with them and it’s not right.               

‘They’ were, of course, West Indian or Asian sub-continental immigrants. A motor-cycle lad who said, of his parents, they just stay awake until I get in at night, and once I’m in they’re happy,… but every time I go out I know they’re on edge, talked casually about going down to Notting Hill Gate… to punch a few niggers up. All this came to a head at Notting Hill the next year, 1958, with the now infamous riots which took place there, though the anti-immigrant violence actually started in St Ann’s, a poor district of distant Nottingham, near my birthplace, and spread to the capital the following day.

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In my next post, I want to deal with these events in more detail. For now, I will pause with the paradox of the year in which I was born, 1957, just forty days before Harold Macmillan told the good burghers of Bedford, no doubt some of them Italian immigrants, that most of our people have never had it so good. Today, it feels as if the British, myself included, have spent the last sixty years trapped inside that paradox, that illusionary ‘bubble’. To paraphrase Stuart Hall’s commentary, combining it with the well-known ‘East End’ song, we have been blowing bubbles, but they always seem to burst, just like our dreams. When the mists and myths clear, we are still the same country we were born into sixty years ago. The Sixties’ ‘Social Revolution’ never really happened. The poor are not only still with us, but they are there in greater numbers. The ‘economic miracle’ has dissipated, and the one percent of the adult population who owned four-fifths of all the wealth still do. The ‘Macmillenium’ is long since over, as this millennial generation is the first since the Industrial Revolution not to have as good as its predecessors, let alone better.

 

Main sources:

Andrew Marr (2007), A History of Modern Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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