Archive for the ‘David Owen’ Tag

Britain and the World, 1984-89: From local difficulties to global conflicts.   Leave a comment

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The ‘Iron Lady’ at the peak of her powers, with tank and flag, in 1986.

The Brighton Bombing:

During the 1984 Conservative Conference, an IRA bomb partly demolished the Grand Hotel in Brighton, almost killing the Prime Minister and a number of her cabinet. The action was intended as a response to Mrs Thatcher’s hard-line at the time of the 1981 Hunger Strike at the Maze Prison in Northern Ireland. The plot had been to assassinate her and the whole of the cabinet in order to plunge the country into political chaos, resulting in withdrawal from Northern Ireland. When the bomb went off at 2.50 a.m., Margaret Thatcher was working on official papers, having just finished her conference speech. The blast scattered broken glass on her bedroom carpet and filled her mouth with dust. She soon learned that the bomb had killed the wife of cabinet minister John Wakeham, he himself narrowly escaping; killed the Tory MP Anthony Berry and had badly injured Norman Tebbit, paralysing his wife. After less than an hour’s fitful sleep, she rewrote her speech and told the stunned conference that they had witnessed an attempt to cripple the government, commenting that…

… the fact that we are gathered here now, shocked but composed and determined, is a sign not only that this attack has failed, but that all attempts to destroy democracy by terrorism will fail.

The final death toll from Brighton was five dead and several more seriously injured, but its consequences for British politics, which could have been momentous, turned out to be minimal. If the IRA could not shake her, could anything else?

The Gorbachevs in London:

In November 1984, Mikhail Gorbachev arrived at the VIP terminal at Heathrow airport, together with his wife, Raisa. The British had spotted him first, in the summer of that year, if not earlier. He was a lawyer by training, which he had done at the end of the Stalin period. So, while he accepted there were rules to be obeyed, he also knew that they were only really there to be bent. He and Raisa did a great deal in their few days in London, but they did not perform the obligatory ceremony of laying a wreath on Marx’s tomb in Highgate Cemetery. Instead, they paid impromptu visits to Westminster Abbey and Number Ten Downing Street. The Foreign Office arranged a formal lunch for the Gorbachev at Hampton Court Palace, to which they invited a couple of hundred worthies, including BBC journalist John Simpson. He was seated next to a man from Moscow who was to become Gorbachev’s most senior advisors. Simpson asked him whether Gorbachev would really be able to make a difference to the Soviet Union. The Russian replied:

“He will have to,” he said. I noticed he didn’t trouble to question my assumption that Gorbachev would get the top job.

“Why?”

“Because a great deal has to be done. Much, much, more, I think, than you in the West realize.”

The Thatcher Revolution at Home – “Don’t tell Sid!”:

If Labour had been accused of creating a giant state sector whose employees depended on high public spending and could, therefore, be expected to become loyal Labour voting-fodder, then the Tories were intent on creating a property-owning democracy. The despair of Labour politicians as they watched it working was obvious. By the end of the 1980s, there was a large and immovable private sector in Britain of share-owners and home-owners, probably working in private companies, SMEs (small and medium enterprises) and increasingly un-unionised. The proportion of adults holding shares rose from seven per cent to twenty-five per cent during Thatcher’s years in power. Thanks to the ‘right to buy’ policy for council tenants, more than a million families purchased the hoses they lived in, repainting and refurbishing them and then watching their value shoot up, particularly as they had been sold them at a discount of between a third and a half of market value. The proportion of owner-occupied homes rose from fifty-five per cent in 1979 to sixty-seven per cent in 1989. In real terms, total personal wealth rose by eighty per cent in the eighties.

Looking below the surface, however, the story becomes more complex. Of the huge rise in wealth, relatively little was accounted for by shares. The increase in earnings and the house-price boom were much more important. The boom in shareholdings was fuelled by the British love of a bargain than by any deeper change in the culture. There was always a potential conflict between the government’s need to raise revenue and it hopes of spreading share ownership. In the early eighties, ministers erred on the side of the latter. The breakthrough privatization was that of fifty-two per cent of British Telecom in November 1984, which raised an unprecedented 3.9 billion. It was the first to be accompanied by a ‘ballyhoo’ of television and press advertising and was easily oversubscribed. In the event, two million people, or five per cent of the adult population bought ‘BT’ shares, almost doubling the total number of shareholders in a single day. After this came British Gas, as natural gas fields had been supplying Britain from the North Sea since the late sixties, pumping ashore at Yarmouth and Hull, replacing the coal-produced system. With its national pipe network and showrooms, natural gas had become the country’s favourite source of domestic energy and was, therefore, a straightforward monopoly. The government prepared for the sale with another TV campaign featuring a fictitious neighbour who had to be kept in the ‘dark’ about the bargain sale – “Don’t tell Sid!” This raised 5.4 billion, the biggest single privatization.

With the equally bargain-price shares offered to members of building societies when they de-mutualised and turned into banks, Britain developed a class of one-off shareholders, ‘kitchen capitalists’. They soon sold off their shares at a profit, few of them developing into long-term stock market investors, as had been hoped. Those who kept their shares did not go on to buy more, and rarely traded the ones they had acquired as a result of the privatizations, demutualisations and former employment options. The long-term failure to nurture a deeply rooted shareholding democracy has added to the contemporary criticism that public assets were being sold off too cheaply. The then Chancellor, Nigel Lawson later admitted that wider share ownership was an important policy objective and we were prepared to pay a price for it. The failure, ultimately, to achieve that objective showed that there were limits to the Thatcher Revolution. The most successful privatizations were the ones where the company was pushed into full competition, as with British Airways, Rolls-Royce and British Aerospace. The utilities – gas, electricity, water – were always different, because they were natural monopolies. Yet without competition, where would the efficiency gains come from? This question was left as a rhetorical one, unanswered until decades later. The water and electricity companies were split up in order to create regional monopolies, with power generation split into two mega-companies, National Power and Powergen. In reality, few people outside the ‘Westminster village’ cared who owned the companies they depended on, so long as the service was acceptable. Britain was becoming a far less ideological country and a more aggressively consumerist one.

Heseltine and the Helicopters:

In the winter of 1984-85, the great Westland Helicopter crisis that broke over the Thatcher government was a battle between ministers about whether a European consortium of aerospace manufacturers or and American defence company, working with an Italian firm should take over a struggling West Country helicopter maker. While this was a government that claimed to refuse to micro-manage industry, yet the fight about the future of the Yeovil manufacturer cost two cabinet ministers’ jobs and pitted Thatcher against the only other member of her cabinet with real charisma, Nigel Heseltine. The small storm of Westland gave early notice of the weaknesses that would eventually destroy the Thatcher government, though not for another five years.

One weakness was the divide throughout the Tory Party over Britain’s place in the world. By the 1980s, helicopters were no longer a marginal defence issue. They would become crucial to Britain’s capabilities, the new army mule for hauling artillery over mountains and across stretches of water. United Technologies, the US company whose Sikorsky subsidiary built the Black Hawk helicopter, wanted to gain control over part of Britain’s defence industry. Alexander Haig, Reagan’s Secretary of State who had been so helpful to Mrs Thatcher during the Falklands Campaign was now back at his old company and ‘called in his markers’ for the American bid. Adopting a position of outward neutrality would probably have favoured it anyway as a further strengthening of the Special Relationship between the UK and the US. But on the other side, supporting the European consortium, were those who felt that the EC had to be able to stand alone in defence technology. Michael Heseltine and his business allies thought this was vital to protect jobs in the cutting-edge science-based industries. The US must not be allowed to dictate prices and terms to Europe. So the conflict was concerned with whether Britain stood first with the US or with the EC. It was a question which would continue to grow in importance throughout the eighties until, in the nineties, it tore the Conservatives apart.

The second weakness exposed by the Westland Affair was the Thatcher style of government, which was more presidential and more disdainful of the role of cabinet ministers than any previous government. The Prime Minister was conducting more and more business in small committees or bilaterally, with one minister at a time, ensuring her near absolute predominance. She gathered a small clique of trusted advisors around her. Just before her fall, Nigel Lawson concluded that she was taking her personal economic advisor, Sir Alan Walters, more seriously than she was taking him, her next door neighbour in No 11, her Chancellor of the Exchequer. She used her beloved press officer, Bernard Ingham to cut down to size any ministers she had fallen out with, briefing against them and using the anonymous lobby system for Westminster journalists to spread the message.  In his memoirs, Ingham angrily defends himself against accusations of the improper briefing of the press, yet there are too many witnesses who found the Thatcher style more like that of the court of Elizabeth Tudor than that of a traditional cabinet, a place which demanded absolute loyalty and was infested with sycophantic favourites. In the mid-eighties, this was a new way of doing the business of government and to ministers on the receiving end, it was freshly humiliating.

But if there was one minister unlikely to take such treatment for long, it was Michael Heseltine (pictured below at a Conservative Party Conference). He was the only serious rival to Thatcher as the ‘darling of the party’ and media star, handsome, glamorous, rich and an excellent public speaker. He was said by his friend, fellow Tory MP and biographer, Julian Critchley, to have mapped out his future career on the back of an envelope, while still a student at Oxford, decade by decade, running through making his fortune, marrying well, entering Parliament and then, 1990s, Prime Minister. Though Heseltine commented that he could not remember doing this, it was in character. As a young man, he had flung himself into the characteristic sixties businesses of property investment and magazine publishing. A passionate anti-socialist, he had won a reputation for hot-headedness since once picking up the Mace, the symbol of Parliamentary authority, during a Commons debate about steel nationalization, and waving it at the Labour benches in such a violent manner as to earn himself the nickname ‘Tarzan’. His speeches to Tory Party conferences were full of blond hair-tossing, hilarious invective and dramatic gestures. In her memoirs, Thatcher portrayed Heseltine as a vain, ambitious man who flouted cabinet responsibility. The Westland crisis was, in her view, simply about his psychological flaws. However, they agreed about much, but was a more committed anti-racialist than she was and more deeply in favour of the EC, and she always regarded him as a serious and dangerous rival.

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The two bigger beasts of the Tory Party in the eighties went to war on behalf of the two rival bidders for Westland. She was livid that he was using his position as Defence Secretary to warn the company’s shareholders about the dangers of going with the Americans, potentially shutting out European business. She thought he was tipping the scales against Sikorsky, despite Westland’s preference for them. Certainly, Heseltine repeatedly made it clear that the Ministry of Defence would not be buying their Black Hawk helicopter and did much to rally the European consortium. Thatcher, meanwhile, was deploying the public line that she was only interested in what was best for the shareholders while trying to make sure the Americans were kept in the race, ahead of the Europeans. Eventually, she sought advice from the government law officers about whether Heseltine had been behaving properly. A private reply was leaked in order to weaken his case. Furious about this wholly inappropriate act which he suspected was the responsibility of Thatcher and Ingham, Heseltine demanded a full inquiry. During a meeting of the cabinet, she counter-attacked, trying to rein him in by ordering that all future statements on Westland must be cleared first by Number Ten. Hearing this attempt to gag him, Heseltine calmly got up from the cabinet table, announced that he must leave the government, walked into the street and told a solitary reporter that he had just resigned.

The question of exactly who had leaked the Attorney General’s legal advice in a misleadingly selective way to scupper the European bid then became critical. The leaking of private advice broke the rules of Whitehall confidentiality, fairness and collective government. The instrument of the leak was a comparatively junior civil servant to the Trade Secretary, Leon Brittan. But it was unclear as to who had told Colette Brown to do this, though many assumed it was her boss, Bernard Ingham. He denied it, and Mrs Thatcher also denied any knowledge of the leak. After dramatic Commons exchanges during which she was accused of lying to the House, she pulled through, while Leon Brittan was made a scapegoat. Some of Thatcher’s greatest business supporters such as Rupert Murdoch then weighed in on the side of the American bid. Eventually, amid accusations of arm-twisting and dirty tricks, the company went to Sikorsky and the storm subsided. But it had revealed the costs of the Thatcher style of government. Getting the better of foreign dictators and militant trade union leaders was one thing, but behaving the same way with senior members of the cabinet and the Tory Party was quite another. Heseltine wrote later:

I saw many good people broken by the Downing Street machine. I had observed the techniques of character assassination; the drip, drip, drip, of carefully planted, unattributable stories that were fed into the public domain, as colleagues became marked as somehow “semi-detached” or “not one of us”.

‘Shadowing’ the Deutschmark & ‘Diva’ Diplomacy:

There were also debates and rows about economic policy in relation to the EC. The Chancellor, Nigel Lawson, wanted to replace the old, rather wobbly system of controlling the money supply targets, the Medium Term Financial Strategy, with a new stratagem – tying the pound to the German mark in the European Exchange Rate System (ERM). This was an admission of failure; the older system of measuring money was useless and in the world of global fast money. Linking the pound to the Deutschmark was an alternative, with Britain subcontracting her anti-inflation policy to the more successful and harder-faced disciplinarians of the West German Central Bank. Lawson was keen on this alternative ‘shadowing’ method; in effect, he was looking for somewhere firm to plant down policy in the context of the new global financial free-for-all. Thatcher disagreed, arguing that currencies should be allowed to float freely, but at the time little of this debate was known beyond the specialist financial world.

Other ‘Europe’- related debates were conducted more openly in general political life. The mid-eighties were years of Thatcherite drift over Europe. Jacques Delors, later her great enemy as President of the European Commission, had begun his grand plan for the next stages of ‘the union’. Thatcher knew that the ERM was intended one day to lead to a single European currency, part of Delors’ plan for a freshly buttressed European state. Lawson ignored her objections and shadowed the Deutschmark anyway. But when the cost of her Chancellor’s policy became excessive, she ordered him to stop which, under protest, he did. However, the Single European Act, which smashed down thousands of national laws preventing free trade inside the EC, promised free movement of goods, capital, services and people, and presaging the single currency, was passed with her enthusiastic support. She rejected the sceptics’ view that when the continental leadership talked of an economic and political union, they really meant it.

Back in the mid-eighties, personal relationships mattered as much in modern diplomacy as they had in Renaissance courts, and the Thatcher-Gorbachev courtship engaged her imagination and human interest. She was becoming the closest ally of Ronald Reagan, in another international relationship which was of huge emotional and political significance to her. In these years she became an ‘international diva’ of conservative politics, feted by crowds from Russia and China to New York. Her wardrobe, coded depending on where an outfit had been first worn, told its own story: Paris Opera, Washington Pink, Reagan Navy, Toronto Turquoise, Tokyo Blue, Kremlin Silver, Peking Black. Meanwhile, she was negotiating the hard detail of Hong Kong’s transitional status before it was handed over to Communist China in 1997. She got a torrid time at Commonwealth conferences for her opposition to sanctions against the apartheid régime in South Africa. At home, the problem of persistently high unemployment was nagging away, though it started to fall from the summer of 1986 seemed to fall.

The Bombing of Libya and ‘BBC Bias’:

Then there was the highly unpopular use of British airbases for President Reagan’s attack on Libya in 1986. This provoked a controversy, not for the first time, between the BBC and the Thatcher government. The PM’s supporters on the right of the Tory Party had long been urging her to privatize the BBC and she herself appeared to believe that it was biased against her government; by which she meant that it was too independent. She still remembered the irritation she felt at some of the phrases its leading broadcasters had used back in the Falklands War: if we are to believe the British version, etc.  Her view was that as the British Broadcasting Corporation, a public service broadcaster supported by the television license fee, it should give the British government’s view without questioning it. Yet it was perfectly obvious that the reason the BBC was so respected both in Britain and abroad was that it was genuinely independent of the British government. The BBC was legally obliged by its Charter to remain independent of party political control. Lord Reith, its first Director-General, had successfully resisted Churchill’s attempt to take over its radio service for government propaganda during the General Strike of 1926. It was one of the few great organs of state which Margaret Thatcher was not able to dominate in some way, a constitutional reality which made her visibly restless on occasions.

Because the American aircraft which bombed Libya took off from bases in Britain, that made it a British issue. The pretext for the attack was a terrorist attack on a Berlin nightclub used by American servicemen, but far from being the work of Libyan agents, it proved to have been carried out by a group linked to the Syrian government. There was a good deal of public disquiet about it, especially since it was strongly suspected that the Reagan administration was primarily bombing Libya to teach bigger and more formidable countries, chiefly Iran, a lesson. Libya was a feeble, though intermittently nasty little dictatorship which could never organise significant acts of state terrorism. The real battle was a propaganda one. Colonel Gaddafi (pictured below in 1979) claimed that his daughter had been killed in the raid, and showed her body to the journalists in Tripoli at the time. It wasn’t until some time later that it became clear that he had adopted the little girl as she lay dying from her injuries. But whoever’s daughter she was, she was certainly killed by the American bombing.

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The British government was rather rattled by the hostility which sections of the public were starting to show over the bombing; and since, at the times of crisis, people tend to turn to the BBC for their information, some senior ministers felt that this public opposition was the fault of the BBC and wanted it to be taught a lesson. The chairman of the Conservative Party, Norman Tebbit, announced that he would be investigating the BBC’s coverage of the raid. The BBC allowed itself to seem rattled by the threats he and his party made, which made him feel justified in his approach. John Simpson, the BBC’s World Affairs Editor recalled sitting with a few journalists in the canteen at the Television Centre when the tannoy went:

‘PBX. Calling Mr John Simpson.’

I hurried over to the phone. The deputy editor of television news was on the other end.

“We’ve just had Tebbit’s report,” he said. “It’s serious. The editor would be grateful if you could get up here.”

I finished my fish and went up. A small group of worried-looking people were sitting round in the editor’s office. The editor handed me a copy of the document Tebbit and his researchers at Conservative Central Office had compiled. I looked through it rather nervously, anxious to see what it had to say about my own reporting of the attack. It made a few neutral comments, then one which was rather complimentary; that was all.

“That’s all OK,” I blurted out, voicing my own relief. Nothing much there.” 

The editor turned to me. I could see a faint ray of hope was glimmering for the first time.

“You think so?”

I realised that I had been speaking purely for myself. But it seemed unkind and unreasonable to destroy his only cause for optimism. He must have felt that his career was on the line.

“Oh sure, it’s full of loopholes. Just go through it carefully and you’ll find them all,” I said.

I hadn’t read it carefully enough to know if that were true, but I have never yet read a long document that you couldn’t pick holes in.

Chris Cramer, a tough character who was the news editor at the time… agreed. Cramer and I were both affronted by the idea that in a free society the government should presume to dictate to the broadcasters and try to make them report only what the government wanted. Maybe we were both chancers too.

“John’s right,” he said. “We should go through this with a fine-tooth comb. We’ll find lots of things wrong with it.”

Which is what happened. We divided the Conservative Central Office document up between us, and spent the next couple of days going through it point by point. The document compared the BBC’s coverage of the raid unfavourably with ITN’s, and tried to make the case that the BBC had been deliberately biased. Some of the individual points it made were reasonable enough: the news presenter on the night of the bombing had added various inaccuracies to the sub-editors’ scripts. (Soon afterwards she left the BBC.)

But it was silly to try to pretend that there was some underlying bias. I have never yet found a senior Conservative who really believed that…  

It hadn’t occurred to Norman Tebbit that the BBC would stand its ground since in the past it had fallen over itself with nervousness at the mere suggestion that the government of the day was upset with it. When it issued its response there was a big wave of public support for the BBC, partly because Kate Adie had established herself in the public eye as a brave, serious reporter, staying in Tripoli when the bombs were falling. Previously, women reporters had tended to be given social affairs to report on. Here was a woman who had become a war correspondent; something unprecedented on British television at that time, though there have been many equally brave successors since. But there was also public support for the BBC because, for all its failings, the BBC was considered to be as British an institution as any other in the country, and ninety per cent of the population had some contact with it each week in the pre-internet era. Norman Tebbit had failed to realise the British people did not like party political attacks on ‘Auntie’. An opinion poll taken shortly afterwards indicated that Conservative voters supported ‘the Beeb’ on almost the same scale as voters for other parties. Thatcher, aware that she would have to call a general election within the next year or so, quickly distanced herself from her erstwhile lieutenant’s campaign, leading to the first rift between the two of them. On the night she won the 1987 election, Simpson tried to interview her by the railings of St John’s, Smith Square, next to Conservative Central Office, amid rabid Young Conservatives chanting calls for the privatisation of the BBC:

Transcript of interview with Prime Minister, 18.6.87:

Speakers: Rt Hon Margaret Thatcher, PC MP (non-staff), John Simpson (contract)…

JS: The crowd here seem to want you to privatise the BBC. Are you planning to do that?

MT: Well, I think… Well, you know, I must really go and speak to them.

Of course, she never again considered doing so, even if she had been temporarily persuaded by Tebbit’s arguments. She knew what people would stand for, and what they wouldn’t; it was when this instinct finally deserted her that her decline and fall began.

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The ‘Poll Tax’ and the Peasants:

After the election, a wider dilemma emerged right across domestic policy, from the inner cities to hospitals, schools to police forces. Thatcher believed that government should set the rules, deliver sound money and then stand back and let other people get on with providing services. In practice, she often behaved differently, always more pragmatic and interventionist than her image suggested. At least, however, the principle was clear. But when it came to the public services there was no similar principle. She did not have the same respect for independent ‘movers and shakers’ in the hospitals, schools and town halls as she had for entrepreneurs and risk takers she admired in business. Before the Thatcher revolution, the Conservatives had been seen, on balance, defenders of local democracy. They had been strongly represented on councils across the country and had been on the receiving end of some of the more thuggish threats from Labour governments intent, for instance, on abolishing grammar schools. The town and county hall Conservatives had seen local representatives on hospital boards and local education authorities as bulwarks against socialist Whitehall. Margaret Thatcher herself had begun her political apprenticeship doing voluntary public work for her father, Alderman Roberts, sitting on various unpaid committees.

Yet in power, Thatcher and her ministers could not trust local government, or any elected and therefore independent bodies at all. Between 1979 and 1994, an astonishing 150 Acts of Parliament were passed removing powers from local authorities and switched to unelected quangos. The first two Thatcher governments transferred power and discretion away from people who had stood openly for election, and towards the subservient agents of Whitehall, often paid-up Tory party members. Despite his apparent love for Liverpool before the Militant takeover, Michael Heseltine attacked the whole of local government with new auditing with new auditing arrangements, curbs on how much tax they could raise, and spending caps as well. In the health service, early attempts to decentralize were rapidly reversed and a vast top-down system of targets and measurements was put in place, driven by a new planning organisation. It cost more and the service, undoubtedly, got worse. Similar centralist power-grabs took place in urban regeneration, where unelected Urban Development Corporations, rather than local councils, were given money to pour into rundown cities. The biggest city councils, most notably the Greater London Council, were simply abolished. Its powers were distributed between local borough councils and an unelected central organisation controlled by Whitehall. By 1990 there were some twelve thousand appointed officials running London compared with just 1,900 elected borough councillors. Housing Corporations took ninety per cent of the funds used by housing associations to build new cheap homes. In the Thatcher years, their staff grew sevenfold and their budgets twenty-fold.

Margaret Thatcher would say the poll tax, the name associated with the tax per head which was the catalyst for the bloody Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, was actually an attempt to save local government. Like schools, hospitals and housing, local councils had been subjected to a barrage of ministers trying to stop them spending money, or raising it, except as Whitehall wished. Since 1945, local government had been spending more, but the amount of money it raised independently still came from a relatively narrow base of people, some fourteen million property-owners. Thatcher had been prodded by Edward Heath into promising to replace this tax, ‘the rates’, as early as 1974, but nobody had come up with a plausible and popular-sounding alternative. She had always disliked the rates system intensely, regarding them as an attack on self-improvement and other Tory values, and in government, the problem nagged away at her. Once, local elections were not national news; they were about who was best suited to run towns and counties, but in the late sixties and seventies they became national news, a regular referendum on the central government. Under Thatcher, the Conservatives lost swathes of local councils, resulting in more Labour-controlled councils which were even more distrusted by the central government, resulting in more powers away from them. The elections became even less relevant, fuelling more protest voting, and it soon became clear to government ministers that more councils were aping Liverpool by pursuing expensive hard-left policies partly because so few of those who voted for them were actually ratepayers themselves, therefore feeling no personal ‘pinch’.

One way of correcting this anomaly would be to make all those who voted for local councils pay towards their cost. This was the origin of the poll tax or community charge as it was officially called, a single flat tax for everybody. It would mean lower bills for many homeowners and make local councils more responsive to their voters. On the other hand, it would introduce a new, regressive tax for twenty million people, with the poorest paying as much as the richest. This broke a principle which stretched back much further back than the post-war ‘consensus’ to at least the 1920s and the replacement of the Poor Law. But Public Assistance or social security as it was now known, was no longer charged or administered locally so that there was some logic in the change to a flat, universal charge. This proposal was sold to the Prime Minister by Kenneth Baker at a seminar at Chequers in 1985, along with the nationalisation of business rates. Nigel Lawson tried to talk the Prime Minister out of it, telling her it would be completely unworkable and politically catastrophic. The tax was discussed at the same cabinet meeting that Michael Heseltine walked out of over the Westland affair. It might have worked if it had been brought in gradually over a whole decade, as was first mooted, or at least four, as was planned at that meeting.

But at the 1987 Tory Conference, intoxicated by the euphoria of the recent third election victory, party members urged Thatcher to bring it in at once. She agreed since there was some urgency resulting from the dramatic increase in property prices in the eighties. Rates, like the subsequent council tax, were based on the relative value of houses across Britain, changing with fashion and home improvement. This meant that, periodically, there had to be a complete revaluation in order to keep the tax working. Yet each revaluation meant higher rates bills for millions of households and businesses, and governments naturally tried to procrastinate over them. In Scotland, however, a different law made this impossible and a rates revaluation had already happened, causing political mayhem. As a result, Scottish ministers begged Thatcher to be allowed the poll tax first, and she also agreed to this. Exemptions were made for the unemployed and low paid, but an attempt, by nervous Tory MPs, to divide the tax into three bands so that it bore some relation to people’s ability to pay was brushed aside despite a huge parliamentary rebellion. When the tax was duly introduced in Scotland, it was met by widespread protest. In England, the estimates of the likely price of the average poll tax kept rising. Panicking ministers produced expensive schemes to cap it, and to create more generous exemptions, undermining the whole point of the new tax. Capping the tax would remove local accountability; the more exemptions there were, the lesser the pressure would be on the councils from their voters. Yet even the PM grew alarmed as she was told that over eighty per cent of voters would be paying more. Yet she pushed ahead with the introduction of the tax, due to take effect in England and Wales on 1st April 1990.

Bruges Bluntness & Madrid Madness:

The poll tax was one of the causes of her downfall in that following year, the other being Europe. This factor began to be potent in 1988, when turned against Jacques Delors’ plans and went to Bruges in Belgium to make what became her definitive speech against the federalist tide which was now openly advancing towards her. The Foreign Office had tried to soften her message, but she had promptly pulled out her pen and written the barbs and thorns back in again. She informed her audience that she had not…

… successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain only to see them reimposed at a European level, with a European super-state exercising a new level of dominance from Brussels.

There was much else besides. Her bluntness much offended continental politicians as well as her own Foreign Secretary, Sir Geoffrey Howe. Next, she reappointed her monetarist economic advisor, Sir Alan Walters, who was outspokenly contemptuous of Lawson’s exchange rate policy. So, she was taking on two big cabinet beasts with great Offices of State at the same time, creating a serious split at the top of government. Then, Jacques Delors, the determined French socialist re-entered the story, with a fleshed-out plan for an economic and monetary union, which would end with the single currency, the euro. To get there, all EU members would need to put their national currencies into the ERM, which would draw them increasingly tightly together, which was just what Lawson and Howe wanted and just what Thatcher did not. Howe and Lawson ganged up, telling her that she must announce that Britain would soon join the ERM, even if she left the question of the single currency to one side for the time being. On the eve of a summit in Madrid where Britain was due to announce its view the two of them visited Thatcher together in private, had a blazing row with her and threatened to resign together if she did not give way. She did, and, for the time being, the crisis abated.

Piper Alpha – The Price of Oil and Who Profited?

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In June 1988, 185 men were burned or blown to death in the North Sea when an oil platform, Piper Alpha, blew up, yet there has been little commemoration of the tragic event over the past thirty years, in popular memorials (as contrasted with earlier coal-mining disasters of a similar scale), political memoirs or the general media. In the case of oil, the great adventure was lived out at the margins of British experience, halfway to Scandinavia, with its wild scenes played out in the bars of Aberdeen and Shetland, far removed from the media in Glasgow, never mind London. Exploration, equipment and production were also largely controlled by American companies. The number of British refineries actually fell in the eighties, the peak decade for oil production, from twenty-one to thirteen, and forty per cent of those were also owned by US-based companies. According to Nigel Lawson, the revenues from oil taxes gave ‘a healthy kick-start’ to the process of cutting the government deficit, though he always argued that the overall impact of North Sea oil was exaggerated, especially by the Scottish Nationalists (SNP). Ireland also benefited greatly from new investment from the United States in the search for new sources of oil and gas in Irish waters from the 1970s, and their exploitation in the eighties. In addition, as a poorer member state of the EU, the Republic gained a disproportionately larger share of the EU budget than the UK as a whole, so that by the end of the decade the Irish economy was expanding rapidly and the long-term pattern of Irish emigration was being reversed. Both British and Irish trade with the EU increased, and Ireland’s economy became less dependent on Britain’s.

Birt, the BBC & Beijing:

Following its own battles with Margaret Thatcher and Norman Tebbit following the bombing of Libya, by the end of the eighties the BBC went on to become the biggest newsgathering organisation in the world and its reputation for accurate, impartial reporting continued to grow around the globe. In 1988, John Birt joined the Corporation as head of news and current affairs, reforming and revitalising that area before going on to become director-general. Under his leadership, there was a five-fold expansion. The foreign affairs unit grew to eleven people, and Simpson was made the head of it. The expansion came just in time considering how much the world was to change in the following year, in a series of seismic upheavals which affected almost every country on earth. In May 1989, Simpson and Adie teamed up in Beijing, covering the infamous massacre in Tiananmen Square:

In the BBC’s offices I found the redoubtable Kate Adie. She had been out in the streets all night with her camera team, and was in bad shape. A man had been killed right beside her, and her arm had been badly grazed in the incident. Together we assembled our reports. There was no time to edit words to pictures, nor even of seeing the pictures. All we could do was write our scripts, record them, and send them off to Hong Kong with the cassettes.

I sat at the computer, numbed by everything I had seen and determined not to get too emotional about it. I’d made real friends among the students in Tiananmen Square. The thought that they might now be dead or injured, that one of their best and most decent manifestations of recent times had been snuffed out in front of me was too disturbing and too painful for me to deal with. And so I took refuge in the old BBC concepts of balance and objectivity; there wasn’t an ounce of emotion in my script.

Kate’s report was very different. It was full of emotion. Six months later, when I finally watched the two reports side by side, I thought that while mine was perfectly accurate it had nothing to do with the real feeling of what had taken place. Hers did. I suppose the two were complimentary, and they were certainly used side by side on the news in Britain. 

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Above. The Morning of 20 May in Tiananmen Square.

A Tale of Two Cities – a Hell of a Dickens:

On 14th July 1989, Simpson was in Paris, reporting on the meeting of the ‘G7′, the leaders of the West’s seven leading capitalist powers, hosted by Francois Mitterrand, the French President. With hindsight, the two hundredth anniversary of the French Revolution was perhaps the single moment which best reflected the triumph of liberal democracy over all rival systems of government. The wealth, the grandeur, the personal liberty, the prestige and power which were on display were greater than the world had seen before. Soon, however, the decline in the power of the United States became more obvious. Margaret Thatcher still seemed unassailable as Britain’s prime minister, but would be politically vulnerable within a few months. While President Bush handed over the key to the Bastille which Lafayette had taken with him to America shortly after the Revolution, her gift to Mitterand was a first edition copy of Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities: inexpensive, and not very good as history. It was a grudging, insular gesture, typical of British attitudes towards France in the 1980s, which had chosen to follow an economic policy which was the exact opposite of Thatcherism. She disapproved not just of France, but of the occasion and the whole business of celebrating revolution. Her view was that evolution was greatly preferable to revolution, which was of little use to those, in 1789 or 1989, who lived under an autocracy which refuses to evolve. Although Mrs Thatcher may have helped to persuade Ronald Reagan that Mikhail Gorbachev was ‘a man to do business with’, according to John Simpson…

It wasn’t Mrs Thatcher’s economic principles which caused the changes in the Soviet bloc, but the simple, verifiable fact that Western capitalist society was effective, rich and reasonably free, while the countries of the communist bloc were manifestly not.

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In the same month, four weeks after her climb-down at the Madrid summit, Thatcher hit back at her Chancellor and Foreign Secretary. Back in London, she unleashed a major cabinet reshuffle, compared at the time to Macmillan’s ‘night of the long knives’ in 1962. Howe was demoted to being Leader of the Commons, though she reluctantly agreed to him having the face-saving title of Deputy Prime Minister, a concession rather diminished when her press officer, Bernard Ingham, instantly told journalists that it was a bit of a non-job. Howe was replaced by the relatively unknown John Major, the former chief secretary. Lawson survived only because the economy was weakening and she thought it too dangerous to lose him just at that point. He was having a bad time on all sides, including from the able shadow chancellor John Smith. When Walters had another pop at his ERM policy, he decided that enough was enough and resigned on 26 October, telling the PM she should treat her ministers better. He was replaced by the still relatively unknown John Major.

Budapest, Berlin & Bucharest: Falling Dominoes of 1989:

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Meanwhile, all around them, the world was changing. On 23rd October I was in Hungary on a third, personal visit, when the country changed its name and constitution. It had dropped the word ‘People’s’ from its title and was henceforth to be known simply as the Republic of Hungary. My first visit, an ‘official’ one, as a member of a British Quaker delegation, had been exactly a year earlier, when the withdrawal of Soviet troops had been announced, along with the decision of the then communist government that the 1956 Revolution, which had begun on the same day, would no longer be referred to by them as a ‘counter-revolution’. A few days later in 1989, East Germany announced the opening of its borders to the West and joyous Berliners began hacking at the Berlin Wall.

Then the communists in Czechoslovakia fell, and at Christmas the Romanian dictator Ceaucescu was dragged from power and shot, along with his wife. According to John Simpson, who also witnessed all these events, including those in Bucharest at close quarters (as pictured above), found among the dictators’ possessions was a Mont Blanc pen given to him by the British Labour Party, presumably during the couple’s visit to London in 1978. This was instigated by the then Foreign Secretary, Dr David Owen who, along with James Callaghan, persuaded the Queen against her will that the Ceaucescus should be invited. The pictures below show them riding in State along the Mall. But I have written about all these events elsewhere.  Suffice it to say, just here, that, since the early seventies, politicians of all persuasions were prepared to overlook Ceaucescu’s increasing megalomania and the unpleasantness of the government he controlled because he represented an independent voice within the Warsaw Pact, refusing to send Romanian forces to crush the ‘Prague Spring’ in 1968. As early as 1972, a left-wing Labour MP had written:

As a result of unconditional acceptances of the past abuses of the legal system, Ceaucescu has declared that steps must be taken to ensure that such injustices can never occur in the future. The importance of democracy is therefore being increasingly stressed and… there is no question of rigging trials as occurred in the past. … Interference by anyone, no matter how important, is unacceptable in Ceaucescu’s view. 

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The not-so-beautiful relationship which came to an end with the shooting of the ‘Tsar and Tsarina’ who built their own palace (below) in Bucharest after visiting Buckingham Palace.  It was due to be completed just weeks after their overthrow.

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After meeting Ceaucescu on his state visit in 1978, Margaret Thatcher, then the leader of the opposition, commented:

I was impressed by the personality of President Ceaucescu … Romania is making sustained efforts for consolidating peace and understanding.  

The ‘domino’ events of the Autumn and Winter of 1989 in the eastern part of the continent, in which Margaret Thatcher had played a ‘bit part’ alongside Reagan and Gorbachev, would have a ripple effect on her own fall from power the following year. That was not something many of us involved in East-West relations anticipated even at the end of that year.

Sources:

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

John Simpson (1998), Strange Places, Questionable People. Basingstoke: Macmillan Pan.

John Simpson (1990), Despatches from the Barricades: An Eye-Witness Account of the Revolutions that Shook the World, 1989-90. London: Hutchinson.

 

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Posted October 7, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in Affluence, Apartheid and the Cold War, Balkan Crises, BBC, Belgium, Berlin, Britain, British history, Britons, Brussels, Coalfields, Cold War, Commemoration, Commonwealth, Communism, Conservative Party, Europe, European Economic Community, European Union, Family, France, Germany, Gorbachev, History, Hungarian History, Hungary, Ireland, Labour Party, liberal democracy, Margaret Thatcher, Marxism, Memorial, Migration, Narrative, National Health Service (NHS), Navy, Poverty, privatization, Quakers (Religious Society of Friends), Revolution, Russia, Scotland, South Africa, Syria, terror, terrorism, Thatcherism, Uncategorized, Unemployment, USA, USSR, Warfare

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

Labour – Dropping the Donkey Jacket:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Enemy Within?:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Tomorrow, Saturday.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Out with the Old Industries; in with the New:

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

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

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

The North-South Divide – a Political Complex?:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Third Victory and a Turning of the Tide:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

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

 

 

 

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

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Above: Denis Healey in combatant mood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Falklands ‘Escapade’:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Simon Weston in 2008

The Falklands Factor and the 1983 Election:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Political and Cultural Landscape of Wales:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Revolution or retro-capitalism?

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Decade of Extremes – Punks, Skinheads & Hooligans:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Callaghan Years:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Képtalálat a következőre: „tony benn”

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

The Winter of Their Discontent:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spring ‘Awakening’:

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

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

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

Margaret Thatcher during the 1979 General Election campaign.

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

Sources:

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

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

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

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

Posted September 16, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in Anti-racism, Baptists, BBC, Birmingham, Black Country, Britain, British history, Caribbean, Christian Faith, Christian Socialism, Christianity, Church, Commonwealth, Communism, Europe, European Economic Community, Factories, Family, Germany, History, homosexuality, hygeine, Immigration, Integration, Japan, Journalism, manufacturing, Marxism, Midlands, Militancy, morality, Narrative, National Health Service (NHS), nationalisation, nationalism, Poverty, Racism, Revolution, Scotland, Shakespeare, south Wales, Thatcherism, Trade Unionism, Uncategorized, Unemployment, USA, Wales, West Midlands

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The Fall of Herod the Great: Twenty-Five Years on from The Romanian Revolution.   Leave a comment

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The Last Stalinist

At the end of the events of 1989, there was one last, grim, twist. The only Eastern European nation still ruled by an old-school Communist was Romania. The tyrant Nicolae Ceausescu had run the country with a rod of iron since 1965, turning it into a police state. The Securitate, the secret police, terrorised the people into submission while Ceausecu imposed his Stalinist will over the nation and its economy.  At the meeting of the Warsaw Pact leaders in Moscow the day after Gorbachev returned from the Malta summit with President Bush, Ceausescu was the sole Eastern European Communist boss still in office since the last Warsaw Pact summit, only five months before. Gorbachev spoke of eliminating the Cold War, while Ceausescu said the West was out to liquidate socialism. He called for the building up of the Warsaw Pact  against the common danger of NATO. The other Eastern European heads of government ignored him. They went on to support a Czech resolution condemning the Soviet invasion of 1968 which Ceausescu refused to sign. After a frank exchange of opinions with Gorbachev, the Romanian leader flew home in a bad temper.

Two weeks later the Securitate opened fire on protestors who had gathered in the traditionally dissident Transylvanian city of Timisoara in western Romania. For several days the shootings continued, but still people came out onto the streets in ever-growing numbers.  On 21 December, Ceausescu gave a prepared speech from the balcony of his presidential palace in Bucharest to a huge, specially assembled crowd. He intended to show he still had the supporters to restore order, and it was carried live on television. But Romanians had had enough of him.

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Leonid Brezhnev made a historic visit to Romania in November 1976 (above), only too conscious that the government of Nicolae Ceausescu was being courted in the seventies by western politicians who should have known better. For a time it had been useful to them, since they erroneously believed that his independent policies were turning Romania into a Trojan horse within the Warsaw Pact. He had kept his links with Israel and China, when the rest of the Soviet bloc had severed theirs. He advocated the reduction of short-range nuclear weapons in Europe and ways of relaxing tension between the two power groupings. But as soon as Mikhail Gorbachev became General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party in March 1985,  Ceausescu’s usefulness to the West dropped away.

It was no secret that Ceausescu’s regime was responsible for serious infringements of human rights. For its size, Romania had the highest number of secret policemen in the entire Soviet bloc: the Securitate had almost a hundred thousand full-time members. One third of the population, it was said, were informers. Every Romanian who talked to a foreigner was required to report the conversation to the Securitate within twenty-four hours. Securitate officers had the right people’s houses under any number of pretexts and confiscate ‘illegal’ possessions.  The illicit goods Law of 1974 declared the ownership of rare metals and precious stones a state monopoly. A supposed shortage of paper meant that writers were not allowed to publish more than one book a year.

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By the mid-eighties, Ceausescu himself had become a parody of a dictator. The newspapers, radio and television were mostly devoted to his and his family’s doings. In June 1978 the Queen had been obliged, much against her own better judgement, by the then Prime Minister James Callaghan, and his Foreign Secretary, David Owen, to invite Ceausescu to Buckingham Palace. The Labour government was beset with problems at home, and anxious to prove its worth in international diplomacy in relieving the Cold War tensions between the superpowers. Elena Ceausescu, riding in State with Prince Philip along the Mall, enjoyed herself immensely.

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The Queen’s face, however, seemed to show a lack of amusement as she travelled alongside the President. However, back at the Palace, which ‘inspired’ the Romanian couple to plan their own palace in Bucharest, the Queen was both amused and annoyed by the Ceausescu’s assumption that his rooms were bugged. Every morning he would go for a walk, with all his ministers in attendance, around the gardens of the Palace in order to avoid the microphones which he supposed were everywhere. One of his other obsessions was that the Soviets might try to poison him by secreting a radioactive isotope near him, as he believed they had done with his predecessor, who had died of cancer. The Queen gave him two English-bred Labradors, who lived far better than most ordinary Romanians. They had their own limousines, which drove down the centre of lane in the main streets of Bucharest, and they were fed only the best lean steak. Government ministers were expected to address them as ‘Comrades’, and it was a not very funny joke that their master was thinking of giving them seats in the Senate.

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Western politicians of all persuasions were prepared to overlooking his increasing madness and megalomania, together with his government’s treatment of his own people, because they felt that his was an independent voice within the Warsaw Pact. After meeting the dictator on his visit to Britain in June 1978,  the then leader of the Opposition commented,

I was impressed by the personality of President Ceausescu… Romania is making sustained efforts for consolidating peace and understanding, in particular by means of numerous direct contacts leading to the development of bilateral collaboration.

In August 1978, Ceausescu won approval from the Chinese, as their premier, Hua Guo-Feng visited Romania:

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As late as 1988,  Harold Wilson (above), Britain’s PM in much of the 1960s an 1970s sent the dictator a telegram which read: You have raised the Romanian nation to a unique role in the world. By this time,  Ceausecu’s wild extravagance was making Romania’s economic situation far worse. He decided to build a boulevard through Bucharest longer than the Champs-Elysées, lined with shops and mansions. At the head of it was to be a presidential palace larger than Buckingham Palace. It was to contain more than a thousand rooms, and cost more than a billion US dollars, though most of the labour was supplied by the army. Whole regiments were deployed in building what was to be called The House of the Republic (pictured below), and was scheduled for completion in January 1990.

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He had declared that he would pay off Romania’s foreign debt by the middle of 1989, which meant a disturbing programme of austerity for the ordinary Romanians while they could see the extravagance of the building programme in front of their eyes. This was all happening in a country which had been kept short of food and consumer goods since the early 1970s.

Romania had once been called the bread-basket of the Balkans: By the end of the 1980s it was an economic ‘basket case’, exporting ninety per cent of its of its food produce. Eggs became a form of currency, changing hands perhaps a dozen times before they were actually eaten. Westerners who stayed in the foreign currency hotels of Bucharest were unto find ordinary Romanians watching hungrily through the street-level windows while they ate. In the largely Hungarian-speaking area of Transylvania, rationing was intensified to five eggs, a kilo of flour, a kilo of sugar and a kilo of cheese per person per month. Conditions were not much better in Bucharest, and for the country as a whole the rationing was worse than it had been during the Second World War. With Ceausescu, there were scarcely any policies which he could not force on the country. The so-called systematisation of the rural areas, for instance, was something only Stalin or Mao Tse-dong had tried to introduce before him. Its origins lay, as Mao’s reorganisation of the Chinese countryside had done, in a desire to reduce the disparities of wealth and opportunity between country and town. As early as 1967 Ceausescu had announced a policy of homeginisation between the two, but the first projects were not begun until un 1979.  Poor villages were to be demolished and their inhabitants relocated in agro-industrial centres; 558 villages were selected for this process. Naturally, this was deeply unpopular, and even the Communist Party bureaucracy opposed it, with local Party secretaries using every available tactic to delay its implementation. Various Western journalists claimed to have seen or filmed this process, particularly in Transylvania, where it became mixed up with the issue of ethnic Hungarian rights. In the end, only five villages, all in the Bucharest area and all on the route of the President’s motorcade route to one of his country houses, were seriously affected. However, the policy, together with the austerity measures, represented a dangerous attack on the values of a largely agrarian society by an increasingly power-crazed dictator.

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John Simpson, the BBC TV reporter and foreign correspondent was in Romania in the spring of 1989, where a young woman betrayed his crew to the local Securitate in Cluj. He summed up the mood at the time:

As for the woman who had reported us… it was impossible to blame her. Only a handful of Romanians had the moral courage to speak out against the conditions Ceausescu imposed on them. Once they had put their heads above the parapet they could expect to be badly treated. Most people were prepared to put up with the unrelenting hardships of everyday life in silence rather than endure that. She could not have known that we would be allowed to go free; but a regime like Ceausescu’s induces and rewards selfishness and inaction. Later, no doubt, she was embarrassed at what she had done.  But in the spring of 1989 there was no reason whatever to suppose that Ceausescu and his wife would be overthrown before the end of the year. At that time, the regime looked as if it would last forever.  

Arriving in Bucharest, they went out to film the Boulevard with the enormous, elegant and absurdly expensive House of the Republic at its end. By 1989, Ceausescu had become so obsessed with the project that he paid ninety-nine visits to it over the course of the year before his death, examining every little detail. He told the men and women in charge of building it to remember that it was to last for five hundred to a thousand years. The Ceausescu’s were influenced in their choice of interior design, as with the exterior, by their stay with the Queen in 1978. The president’s office, only completed after the dictator’s death, was more than a hundred feet long, with a huge patterned carpet. A little man with skilfully built up shoes, Ceausescu needed imposing circumstances to seem imposing himself.

Rebellion in Transylvania and Revolution in Bucharest

On 20 November 1989, the regime which Nicolae Ceaucescu had run since 1964 seemed to be coup-proof. It was a text-book example of a Marxist-Leninist state. Scientific Socialism,  Ceaucescu had explained to the Congress,  is in absolutely no danger.  They applauded him to the echo, gave him more than forty standing ovations, and re-elected him as President for a further five years. The autocracies of central and eastern Europe might be like dominoes in a circle all around Romania’s borders, but Romania itself was safe for Stalinism. Then, in mid-December in Timisoara, a city in Transylvania with a majority Hungarian-speaking population  (Temesvár in Magyar),the Securitate came to arrest a Reformed Church pastor, László Tökés, for speaking to the Western media. Many of his flock gathered around his manse to protect him. They drove off the Securitate and in the days that followed what had begun as a religious and cultural dispute became broader, as ethnic Romanians joined in. It became an uprising against the government. The tanks were summoned and many people died, but the troops were beaten off. Now the Army’s loyalty was in question, as a little local incident had turned into a full-scale rebellion, the most serious threat that the dictator had faced in a quarter of a century.

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Ceaucesu was not given the full facts about the Timisoara Rebellion. The Securitate kept some of the worst details from him, fearing that it would be blamed for allowing the situation to get out of hand.  As a result, the president had no real idea of the intensity of the feeling against him, or the extent of the uprising he already faced. His response to what he was told was to call a public rally in the main square of the capital. He would address it and the people would listen respectfully, as they always had done. Some of his ministers tried to suggest a television broadcast instead, but he he ignored their concerns. The Securitate sent its men to the factories and offices to instruct fifty people from each workplace to turn out or face being sacked. Loyal party members were to take up their positions at the front of the crowd, and the pleasant winter sunshine encouraged people to turn out in sufficient numbers to provide anonymity for everyone else there. The loyalists at the front held up their long red banners which spoke of Socialist progress and their leader’s heroism. Above their heads, portraits of a much younger Ceausescu were waved. They clapped in unison as Romanian TV broadcast live. As it turned out, that was a serious error of judgement.

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The Great Dictator stood on the balcony overlooking the Square and surveyed his people. In his black Astrakhan hat and his coat with matching collar, he looked very presidential, standing on an unseen box to make him look taller. Beside him were his wife Elena and assorted courtiers, together with his personal head of security, Neagoe, a large man in a fedora hat. Shortly, a few words from him would help change the course of Romanian history. But for the time being, each time each time the president paused, there was more clapping in unison. He waved back,  in a way that was perhaps intended to show humility, but actually made him look more imperious to most of the crowd beyond the loyal front ranks whom he was thanking for organising the rally.

Suddenly, there was a low groan from a section of the crowd, which quickly grew louder and higher and then erupted into booing, whistling and cat-calls.

018It was a total surprise to Ceausescu. He had been reading his speech in his hoarse, old man’s voice, his eyes on the sheet of paper in front of him. As the sound of the booing gradually penetrated him, he looked over to his right, where it was loudest. But he went on pumping out the bland words for a much more slowly now, not thinking what they meant, but trying to think instead about the booing. At his words faded altogether, and he stopped. It was a laughable and shocking moment: a tyrant coming face to face with the hatred of his people:  Macbeth watching the wood begin to move. He put up his right hand, trying to order the crowd to be silent, but it looked as if he was warding off the noise of the booing  and what it meant. One of the group of ministers to his right must have offered some advice, off-mike, because he waved him away angrily. Then, from the right of the screen, the head of the President’s personal bodyguard, Neagoe, came into shot, walking swiftly towards Ceausescu. He paused behind him for an instant, and the microphones picked up his voice and boomed it out over the Square:

They’re getting in.

The general headed for the big French window behind Ceausescu, holding his coat open as though he had a gun in a shoulder holster and would soon pull it out. Elena Ceausescu’s thin, harsh voice was also picked up by the microphone:

Stay calm, please.

Her instincts were right. The crowd wasn’t getting in. There was no plot, no coup. no insurrection, but simply booing, the reaction from years of repression. At that point someone at the television station decided to cut the transmission. The evidence that Ceausescu could be threatened was therefore transmitted live to every home and workplace where the television was switched on, throughout the country. He was vulnerable, after all. However, the moment swiftly passed, when it became obvious that the crowd was not breaking into the Central Committee building and that the rally was continuing, the television cut back to the President.  Ceausescu was continuing with his prepared speech as though nothing had happened, warning about the consequences of the rioting in Timisoara. But it was too late. There were thousands of people out on the streets that afternoon and evening with the same sense of burning grievance. They had realised that the regime was momentarily weakened and that it might just be overthrown if they all stuck together and kept their nerve. They chanted, we want free elections and Don’t leave the streets. They were rewarded by many more, who had been watching the live broadcast, coming out onto the streets, from all over the city, as the Securitate forces hesitated to break up the existing dissenting crowds from the rally.  A full-scale rebellion was taking shape.

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As night fell, the Securitate received orders to shoot to kill.  The crowds built barricades and set fire to cars, as street-fighting became general. The insurgents had no guns or bullets with which to answer the fire of the Securitate, but they made use of Molotov cocktails and the cover of darkness. By dawn on 22 December the outcome was clear, as the crowds had taken control of the main avenue and squares with the Securitate troops having melted away. The insurgents had demonstrated the power of numbers and determination.  The key to their eventual success now lay with the Army, who had so far refused to support the Securitate troops.  At this point the defence minister, General Vasili Milea was shot by Ceausecu’s bodyguard for refusing to pass on the orders for the Army to fire on the insurgents. When the news of this  was broadcast on the TV, the Army was infuriated, and began to change sides,  thus bringing about a revolutionary situation. Ceasescu tried to make one last appeal to the the crowds in the Square, but this time there were no plain clothes Securitate among them, and the crowd hurled stones at him, so that his bodyguard had to quickly bundle him back into the building. This time, the the insurgents did break into the building, and many of those defending it gave up their weapons to them. However, there was just enough resistance from the Securitate troops to enable the  dictator and his wife to escape by helicopter from the roof. A National Salvation Front was declared and , consisting of former Ceausescu aides and a few prominent dissidents. The Army transferred its allegiance to the new government. There was sporadic fighting between soldiers and the remaining Securitate, but by Christmas Day the fighting in Bucharest was over and the revolution had succeeded. Only the fate of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu remained to be decided.

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Top left: A couple of volunteers carrying water to the pro-revolutionary troops are stranded in no-man’s land.

Top right: 22 December – a casualty of the sniping. The building in the centre of the picture is a block of where the Securitate men lived.

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Above: The poet, Mircea Dinescu, newly free, declaims to camera at the studios of Romanian Television on 22 December.

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