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Britain & Ireland Fifty Years Ago, 1968-73: Troubles, Turmoil & Turning Points: Part Two.   Leave a comment

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Decline & Deindustrialisation under Heath:

The long-term decline of the nineteenth-century staple industries such as coal, iron and steel, and shipbuilding, was well underway by the early seventies and manageable only through nationalisation, but that of the manufacturing industries, in particular, became known a ‘deindustrialisation’ and posed a greater threat to Britain’s place in the world. Employment in manufacturing had reached a peak of nine million in 1966 but thereafter fell rapidly. The resulting mass unemployment hurt the old industries of the Northwest of England first, but by the early 1970s, they were proportionately as high in the West Midlands and the South-East, where the newer car-making and manufacturing industries were located, a process which continued into the mid-nineties (see map below). In fact, the decline in the South-East was actually much greater. The lowest was in East Anglia, simply because there was comparatively little manufacturing there to decline.

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A great variety of explanations for the decline in British manufacturing competitiveness has been put forward. None of the economic explanations has proved satisfactory, but one cultural reason may have some credence, that the British came to despise industry by the 1960s and that they were not sufficiently materialistic to work hard for the rewards associated with improved productivity. Added to this, complacency from generations of national success has been blamed, together with the post-war welfare state’s ‘cosseting’ of the workforce. In political terms, the failure of successive governments to address the needs of industry for research and development combined with the ‘exclusive’ cultural and educational background of the Civil Service has also been held responsible for the lack of modernisation of the economy. Obstructionist trade unions were a favourite target for many in the early seventies, but incompetent and outdated management was also a factor. Britain’s failing competitiveness was, by this time, making it increasingly difficult for governments to maintain high employment by intervening in the economy.

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In the summer of 1969, Enoch Powell (pictured above), representing one of the most rapidly declining manufacturing areas of the West Midlands, Wolverhampton, had continued to attack Heath on a broad range of policies, over the need for tax cuts, privatisation and freer markets in economics; over Northern Ireland or ‘Ulster’ as he referred to it,  over proposed British membership of the EEC, which Powell opposed as strongly as Heath supported it. So Powell’s battle-cry for repatriation and an end to immigration was taken by the Tory leadership as part of his campaign to unseat Heath and then replace him. There were plenty in the party and the country who yearned for just that. Apart from the dockers and other marchers, wealthy bankers wanted to fund a campaign for Powell’s leadership. Marcel Everton, a Worcestershire industrialist, raised money for a national federation of Powellite groups and talked of a march on Conservative headquarters to oust Heath. Wilson’s call for an election early in 1970, created an obvious trap which Powell could see very clearly even if his supporters ignored it. His best chance by far would be if Heath lost the election. Then he could attack him openly and perhaps even seize control of the party. Everton openly declared that it would be better for right-wingers to vote Labour so that the Tory party would fall into Enoch’s lap like a ripe cherry. Yet Powell himself recognised that he would be forever branded a traitor by thousands of loyal Conservatives. Either Heath would win and Powell would be finished, or he would lose and Powell would be blamed for splitting the party. Late in the campaign, Powell finally gave his clear and unequivocal support to the official Tory campaign, though not before he had caused Heath a great deal of irritation and embarrassment. Tony Benn called him…

… the real leader of the Conservative Party. He is a far stronger character than Mr Heath. He speaks his mind … Heath dare not attack him publicly even when he says things that disgust decent Conservatives … the flag hoisted at Wolverhampton is beginning to look like the one that fluttered over Dachau and Belsen.

Powell, once he realised the consequences of Heath’s victory, according to his biographer, sat around on his own with his head in his hands, deep in gloom. He had realised that, after Wilson, he had been the greatest loser of the election. The winners, at least in the medium-term, were a group of young Tories who eventually formed themselves into ‘the Selsdon Group’. The ‘Third Way’, a term which was given to the free-enterprise anti-collectivist economics of Tories like Anthony Barber, Edward du Cann and Keith Joseph at the Selsdon Park conference in 1969, prepared the way for Margaret Thatcher’s attempt in the 1980s to ‘roll back’ what was left of the welfare state. It was billed as a return to the Victorian values that had made Britain great, but was not a revival of Gladstonian liberalism, nor even to Palmerstonian ‘gunboat diplomacy’ which at times the Thatcher administrations resembled. Heath abandoned the 1970 manifesto in the face of bitter opposition from the trade unions. This historic U-turn was the catalyst for the formation of the Selsdon Group in 1973.  A handful of young libertarian Conservatives created the new group with Nicholas Ridley MP as president to uphold and promote the free market policies that they believed had won the Conservative Party the 1970 General Election. The group was criticised by many figures within the Conservative Party establishment at the time. Many of its policies, however, influenced later governments led by Margaret Thatcher and John Major. In economic terms at least, the Thatcher government elected in 1979 was a return to the hard-faced monetary control of the 1920s in which resistance to brutal rationalization through closure or by wage and job reductions took the form of determined opposition from trades unions.

Deindustrialisation was not simply a regional problem of the older industrial areas of the North of England and Wales. Nonetheless, long-standing regional disadvantages in terms of employment opportunities and incomes were continuing and worsening – the north-south divide was growing. Employment in agriculture was also in decline; only the service sector was expanding, becoming the major employer in all regions by the mid-seventies (see the diagrammatic map below). But this sectoral growth was still in the future in the early seventies, and it is hard to underestimate quite how heavily, how painfully, relative economic decline weighed on the necks of all politicians forty to fifty years ago.

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Edward Heath’s government (1970-74) struggled to follow pro-active, interventionist policies in the face of the world recession associated with the OPEC oil price rise of 1973. But before that, British productivity had remained pitifully low compared to both the United States, Japan and the European Economic Community, a major reason why there was no real opposition in the country to it joining the EEC. The country was spending too much on new consumer goods and not nearly enough on modernised and more efficient factories and businesses. Prices were rising by seven per cent and wages by double that. Britain was still part of the old post-war world of fixed exchange rates which meant that the Heath government, like those of Attlee and Wilson faced a sterling crisis and perhaps another devaluation.

Heath had identified reform of the unions as his first challenge. They had just seen off Wilson and Barbara Castle’s attempts to ‘moderate’ them collectively, so Heath had decided that he would need to take them on individually, facing down at least one major public sector strike, in addition to removing some of the benefits that he thought encouraged strikes. Britain not only had heavy levels of unionization through all the key industries but also, by modern standards, an incredible number of different unions, more than six hundred altogether. Some of these were still organised on a ‘craft’ basis more relevant to a nineteenth-century economy, rather than as modern industrial unions, and others, like the Transport and General Workers’ Union, incorporated masses of unskilled and semi-skilled labourers across a range of occupations. As a result, the leaders of large unions had only a wobbly hold on what happened on the factory floor or at the dockside. It was a time of industrial militancy at shop-floor level, and this mood was made fun of by the 1973 hit from the folk-rock band the Strawbs, whose song, Part of the Union, had the chorus, You don’t get me, I’m part of the union and each verse began with a reason why:

As a union man I’m wise to the lies of the company spies … With a hell of a shout it’s “out, brothers, out!” … I always get my way, if I strike for higher pay … So though I’m a working man, I can ruin the government’s plan …

So he could, and so he did. Almost immediately on coming to power, Heath had faced a dock strike, followed by a big pay settlement for local authority dustmen, then a power workers’ go-slow which led to power cuts. Then the postal workers struck. Douglas Hurd, later regarded as a ‘wet’ in Margaret Thatcher’s government of nine years later, was Heath’s parliamentary personal secretary at the time, and recorded in his diary:

A bad day. It is clear that all the weeks of planning in the civil service have totally failed to cope with what is happening in the electricity dispute; and all the pressures are to surrender.

Hurd confronted Heath in his dressing-gown, warning him that the government machine was moving too slowly, far behind events. Apparently, things were so bad in the car industry that Henry Ford III visited to warn Heath that his company was thinking of pulling out of Dagenham and its other plants in the UK. Yet Heath’s Industrial Relations Bill of 1971 was ‘balanced’ in its approach, even giving new rights to trade unions while at the same time trying to make agreements with employers legally enforceable through a new system of industrial courts. This was following in the conciliatory footsteps of Wilson and Castle, rather than embarking on a more radical journey.

However, the role of the local shop-steward organisation was sometimes be exaggerated by the press at the time and has sometimes been overplayed by more recent commentators. In the Coventry car industry, where a worker was said to work half as hard as his Dagenham counterpart, Stephen Tolliday has pointed to the difference between factories as being the result of the unions consolidating their positions in the late forties and early fifties in Coventry, whereas workers at Ford, Morris, Austin and Vauxhall were poorly organised until the late 1950s. One might, therefore, expect the extension of union organisation to have a marked effect in pushing forward relative earnings. On the contrary, however, average weekly earnings in the period fell back from twenty-four per cent above the national average between 1959 and 1963 to nineteen per cent between 1968 and 1973. Given that motor industry productivity growth was above average and that union density was increasing in motors throughout the sixties, more quickly than in manufacturing as a whole, this could be an indicator that shop floor bargaining did not have as decisive an impact as has been often asserted. As Bill Lancaster and Tony Mason have pointed out, the caricature of the greedy… car worker… prone to go on strike is somewhat misleading… co-operation with management was still the norm. It was the workers in the older industries who were finding it more difficult to maintain a ‘living wage’. So then the miners struck…

The National Miners’ Strike of 1972:

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At the beginning of 1972, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) began their first national strike since the dark days of the 1920s. The government, with modest coal stocks, was quickly taken by surprise at the disciplined and aggressive tactics of the NUM. Arthur Scargill (pictured above), a rousing speaker, former Communist Party member and highly ambitious union activist, described the mass picket at Saltley as “the greatest day of my life.” Heath blamed the police for being too soft; for the PM, Scargill’s greatest day was…

… the most vivid, direct and terrifying challenge to the rule of law that I could ever recall emerging from within our own country. … We were facing civil disorder on a massive scale … the prospect of the country becoming ungovernable, or having to use the armed forces to restore order, which public opinion would never have tolerated…

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Following the miners’ victory, Heath and his ministers knew that they would have to go directly to the country with an appeal about who was in charge but before that, they tried a final round of compromise and negotiation. It went under the name of tripartism, a three-way national agreement on prices and wages, investment and benefits, involving the government, the TUC and the CBI. The Industry Act of 1972 gave the Tory government unprecedented powers of industrial intervention. There was much ‘wooing’ of moderate trade union leaders. Money, effort and organisation went into Job Centres as unemployment rose steadily towards a million. The industrialists did as much as they could, sitting on yet more committees when in truth they might have been more usefully employed trying to run their companies. The unions, however, had the bit between their teeth. By first refusing to recognise Heath’s industrial relations court as really legitimately a law of the land, and then refusing to negotiate seriously until he repealed the Act, they made the breakdown of this last attempt at consensual economics almost inevitable.

By now, Heath had leaned so far to the left to try to win over the unions that he was behaving like a Wilsonian socialist. He was reinstating ‘planning’, particularly on a regional basis. He was bailing out failing companies such as Upper Clyde Shipbuilders, something he later regarded as a mistake. By offering the unions a privileged place in the running of the nation he had hoped that the individual roles of trade union leaders, as well as those of company directors and politicians, would take second place behind a general commitment to ‘the common good’. But those leaders had got their jobs by promising their members higher wages and better conditions. They could hardly be blamed for doing everything they could within the law to carry out the role they had been given. Similarly, industrialists were driven by profit margins and returns to investors; they were not auxiliary politicians. Heath’s government was later criticised by ‘Thatcherites’ for doing things which a government ought not to do, while not doing things that it ought to do. It was not the business of good governments to try to run businesses or to do the wage bargaining of companies and trade unions for them. Neither should they attempt to control prices.

The Heath government also introduced tax reforms, meant to increase investment, a deal with business on keeping price rises to five per cent, and even some limited privatisation – the travel agents, Thomas Cook, then in public ownership, was sold off, along with some breweries. But Tory messages were still mixed and Heath’s instincts on state control were quickly tested when the most valuable parts of Rolls-Royce faced bankruptcy over the cost of developing new aircraft engines. Unemployment rose sharply in Coventry as employment in the city’s manufacturing industries continued to decline rapidly. Heath briskly nationalised the company, with the engine plant being taken into government hands as a ‘lame duck’. In all, the measures saved eighty thousand jobs, allowing the company to regroup and survive, to the relief of the defence industry. It did revive and was returned to the private sector, making it a clear example, with hindsight, of how nationalisation could be made to work in everyone’s interest. On the other hand, cuts in some personal taxes encouraged spending and thereby increased inflation. This was further fuelled by the removal of lending limits for high street banks which encouraged home ownership through mortgage borrowing. An unbalanced amount was sunk into bricks and lawns over the next thirty to forty years, and the credit ‘boom’ and ‘bust’, involving long-term unaffordable increases in property prices can be traced back to this decision.

Heath’s ‘corporatism’ has been derided and forgotten in the wake of the monetarist, free-market economics of the thirty-year ‘Thatcher era’. In reality, much of the country in the early seventies was simply more left-wing than it was even just five years later. The unions, having defeated their own political leaders, were more self-confident than ever before or since. Many industrial workers, living in bleak towns far away from the glossy pop world of the ‘swinging’ cities, were underpaid and left behind. Heath himself later argued that the consequences of an alternative policy, the mass unemployment of the 1980s, would have been unacceptable to the country in the previous decade. He was surely right in this assessment.  

What finally finished off the Heath government was the short ‘Yom Kippur war’ between Israel and Egypt in October 1973. Israel’s swift and decisive victory was a humiliation for the Arab world and it struck back, using oil. The international cartel of oil producers retaliated against the West after the USA gave Israel strong support during the war, by cutting the supplies of oil each month, thereby quadrupling the price of oil. In addition to provoking an immediate recession, this also fuelled international inflation, and in Britain it arrived with special force. The miners put in another huge wage claim, which would have added half as much again to their wage packets. Despite an appeal by its leader, the moderate Joe Gormley, the NUM executive rejected a thirteen per cent pay increase and voted to ballot for another national strike.

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The rise in oil prices stimulated the search for new sources in British and Irish waters, but these were still the days just before North Sea oil and gas were being produced commercially. Britain could survive high oil prices for a while and could endure coal shortages for a while, but both coming together represented a ‘perfect storm’, or, as the Chancellor Anthony Barber called it, the greatest economic crisis since the war. It certainly compared to that of 1947. Coal stocks had not been built up in preparation for a stoppage so that a whole series of panic measures were introduced. Plans were made for petrol rationing and coupons printed and distributed. The national speed limit was cut by twenty miles per hour, to fifty, in order to save fuel. Then, in January, came the announcement of a three-day working week.

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By the end of 1973, Britain had entered a period of severe recession. This was set against the background of Britain’s share of world trade falling dramatically, from over twenty per cent in the 1950s to about ten per cent by 1975. Nor could it maintain its hold on the domestic market; in 1965 only one car in twenty was imported but by 1978 about half were. Oil and fuel price rises together with the general recession also had the effect of cutting back expenditure on British motorway construction and motor vehicle use during the 1970s. Plans to triple the 660 miles (1,060 km) of motorway in use by 1970 were also frustrated by environmental protest (see map above).

Common Market, Commonwealth and Immigration:

Above: Front page report from the Guardian, 1st January 1973

Edward Heath is a political leader whose reputation and legacy deserves to be revisited. If his premiership, which lasted less than four years, is associated with a single action, it is British entry into ‘Europe’, but throughout his time in office, it was the economy, not Europe, which was the biggest problem facing him. Certainly, his attempts to rein in trade union power and to conquer inflation failed, as did those of Wilson, both before and after his government. The cause that excited him more than any other, Europe, also inflamed his enemies who accused him of lying to the country about the true, political nature of the coming political union which would eventually, inevitably, replaced the Economic Community. These claims, although largely a work of fiction, have continued to play as a strong narrative right up to the current time of ‘Brexit’. Apart from being the first Tory leader to break through the class barriers of the old party and to promote other ‘outsiders’ to the cabinet, his European vision was the product of his own first-hand experiences. Before the war, on a student visit to Germany, he had literally rubbed shoulders with Hitler and met other Nazi leaders. Later he had returned as a fighting officer to see their final defeat in 1945. As he wrote later:

My generation did not have the option of living in the past; we had to work for the future. We were surrounded by destruction, homelessness, hunger and despair. Only by working together right across our continent had we any hope of creating a society which would uphold the true values of European civilisation. 

He was a genuinely compassionate conservative and an unusually brave politician, whose analysis of what was wrong with Britain in the seventies was far more acute than Wilson’s. But he was no starry-eyed idealist when it came to negotiating Britain’s entry to the EEC. He had risen through the Tory Parliamentary Party as a tough chief whip and then as an equally tough negotiator on Europe in the Macmillan years when he had struggled in the face of President de Gaulle’s repeated ‘Non’. Long before becoming PM, he had identified Georges Pompidou, who replaced de Gaulle, as his likely future interlocutor, the man who would say ‘Oui’. Heath later revealed how Pompidou had told him, in French, at Chequers:

If you ever want to know what my policy is, don’t bother to call me on the telephone. I do not speak English, and your French is awful. Just remember that I am a peasant, and my policy will always be to support the peasants.

Pompidou was giving ‘fair warning’ about the vast expense of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), but it did not truly reflect his wider vision of Europe. In fact, he wanted a Europe of large manufacturing countries to take on the cartels of the US and the Far East. By 1970, after a decade during which Britain had grown much more slowly than the six members of the Common Market, Heath was in a weaker position now than he had been under Macmillan. But besides being a trusted negotiator by the French, Britain’s economic weakness served as a strength with Paris at that time, and Pompidou believed that ‘les rosbifs’ were ready to be admitted. Like the rest of the Community, France had struggled for years to understand what Britain really wanted, especially when the British left had appeared so divided on the issue. After eighteen months of further tough negotiations as PM, and in the teeth of opposition from Britain’s fishermen and the Powellites, a deal was thrashed out. It left intact the existing Common Market designed for the convenience of French farmers, and vast amounts of European law had to be swallowed whole. The Commonwealth farmers’ deal was won at the expense of a worse deal on the budget, which would later be reopened by Margaret Thatcher. The British negotiators had decided that it was important for their country’s future to get an entry deal.

When Heath began negotiations, Wilson was a publicly declared supporter of British membership, but as accession loomed, he began sniping at Heath, perhaps looking over his shoulder at his potential successor, Jim Callaghan, who was campaigning openly against membership. The left was in full cry, and two-thirds of Labour’s MPs were on Callaghan’s side. So Wilson changed his position on tactical grounds, claiming that he could not support membership on the Heath terms. After the long and tortuous negotiations, this infuriated the Labour pro-Europeans. Neither did it enthuse the anti-Marketeers, who simply did not believe that Wilson had had a change of heart and assumed that he would sign up if and when he was returned to Number Ten. Nevertheless, when the Heath proposals for membership were put to the Commons, sixty-nine Labour pro-Europeans led by Roy Jenkins defied the party whips and voted with the Conservatives. The left-wing New Statesman delivered a withering verdict on Wilson, whom it labelled as…

… the principal apostle of cynicism, the unwitting evangelist of disillusion … Mr Wilson has now sunk to a position where his very presence in Labour’s leadership pollutes the atmosphere of politics.

After winning the Commons vote, Heath returned to Downing Street to play Bach on the piano, while the opposition MPs, not for the first or last time, conducted screaming matches and ghastly personal confrontations in the voting lobbies. In the aftermath, Tony Benn began to argue that on a decision of such national importance, the people should be able to vote in a referendum. His constituency was in Bristol, represented by the great philosopher Edmund Burke in the eighteenth century. Burke had once sent a letter to his constituents explaining to them that as their MP he owed them his judgement, not his slavish obedience to their opinions. Reversing this argument, Benn expressed the view that a democracy which denied its people the right to choose directly on a matter of such importance would lose all respect. To begin with, Benn had almost no support for his radical view of ‘direct democracy’. Labour traditionalists despised ‘plebiscites’ as the populist devices of fascist demagogues, not in keeping with the principles of representative democracy. Harold Wilson had committed himself publicly and repeatedly against a referendum. Slowly and painfully, however, he came to realise that opposing Heath’s deal while promising to renegotiate, while offering a referendum could be the way out. When Pompidou suddenly announced that France would be holding a referendum on the issue, Wilson snatched at the Benn plan. Although the referendum was still two years away, Wilson’s ‘switch’ had set an important precedent, providing a means for parties to divide on key issues, but remain intact.

Immigration from the ‘old empire’ continued but, following restrictive legislation by Britain, at greatly reduced levels. The 1968 Immigration Act was specifically targeted at restricting Kenyan Asians with British passports. When Ted Heath came to power in the General Election of 1970, he showed that he was desperately worried about the anti-immigration mood which had been revealed in this most bitter of elections. Heath’s manifesto had promised a new single system of control over all immigration from overseas. While denouncing Powell, he moved quickly to pass a restrictive piece of legislation which removed the right to immigrate to Britain of anyone who did not have a parent or grandparent born in the country. The 1971 Immigration Act effectively restricted citizenship on racial grounds by enacting this ‘Grandfather Clause’, by which a Commonwealth citizen who could prove that one of his or her grandparents was born in the UK was entitled to immediate entry clearance. This operated to the disadvantage of black and Asian applicants while favouring citizens from the ‘old Commonwealth’ – the descendants of (white) British settlers from Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa. Powell hit back by likening the distinction to a Nazi race purity law; he wanted a new definition of British citizenship instead. The grandparent rule was defeated by the right and the left combining for opposite reasons, though it was restored two years later. Thus immigration control had moved away from primary immigration to restricting the entry of dependants, or secondary immigration.

Had this been all, then Heath would be remembered as being yet another panicked politician, slamming the door shut and keeping his party happy. It was not all, since the Kenyan crisis of 1968 was about to be replayed, this time at greater speed, in Uganda. There, the anti-British Prime Minister, Milton Obote, had just been replaced in a coup by the fat, swaggering, Sandhurst-educated Idi Amin who announced that he had been told in a dream that he must expel the country’s Asian population, just as the Kenyans had done. Amin was clearly a monster, whose thugs clubbed his enemies to death with staves, who threatened to kill British journalists, who was rumoured to keep human flesh in his fridge and to feast on it, and who enthused about the way the Nazis had dealt with the Jews. Though Powell argued angrily that Britain had no obligation to the trapped Ugandan Asians, Heath acted decisively to allow them in to settle. Airlifts were arranged, and some 28,000 people arrived within a few weeks in 1971. They eventually settled in the same areas as other East African Asians, even though Leicester, which had become the ‘least white’ city in England, had published notices in Ugandan papers pleading with migrants not to try to settle there. Within a few years, Powell would no longer be a conservative, Heath having confronted him head on and defeated him.

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The employment available to new immigrants was poorly paid and working conditions were little better, causing some black and Asian workers to resort to industrial action. The photograph above shows an Asian immigrant employed in a Bradford textile factory. The decline of this industry in the early seventies led to high long-term unemployment in the Asian communities. To begin with, faced with prejudice in finding private rented accommodation, as well as more subtle discrimination in residency requirements for council housing, immigrants tended to concentrate in poor inner city areas, as can be seen below in the map of Birmingham in 1971. However, as New Commonwealth immigrants began to become established throughout Birmingham and the West Midlands, community infrastructure including places of worship, ethnic grocers, butchers and restaurants began to develop. These contributions to the cultural and social life of the British cities helped to overcome earlier prejudices among the native population, and some middle-class Indians began to move further out into the suburbs.

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Britain’s experience of migration is not just a narrative of those who have come to Britain, but also of those who have left, to South Africa, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, well over half a million in the sixties alone. At the same time, there is no doubt that, more than any almost any other single social factor in post-1945 Britain, immigration changed Britain. At no stage was there a measured and frank assessment of the likely scale and long-term social effects of immigration by party leaders, voluntarily, in front of the electorate. The main parties did very little to ensure that mass immigration from the Caribbean, the Indian subcontinent and East Africa was successful. West Indians and Ugandan Asians got very little official help to integrate into British society. The reluctance with which the latter were let into Britain in 1972 showed how narrow-minded and less generous towards its former imperial subjects Britain had become. There was very little attempt to create mixed communities or to avoid mini-ghettoes. The real question is whether this neglect of public opinion and of the consequences of immigration, not least for the immigrant communities, has produced a better country. It is now clear that this is a far bigger story than simply a tidying up after Empire.

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Further afield, Britain had retreated from most of its empire by the 1970s. The major remaining colony was Rhodesia, which had been illegally ruled by a white minority government since 1967 when it had declared independence unilaterally. In 1968 the Labour government decided to pull the considerable British contingents out of the Persian Gulf and Singapore, which was done by 1971. There was also an end to Britain’s role ‘east of Suez’. The fabric of the old empire had gone and now the frame which had taken its weight had gone too. There was nothing left but a few bricks, and some shadows. None of the shadows was substantial enough to make up fully for what had been lost. At first it was thought that the Commonwealth might. In the 1950s the fact that so many ex-colonies had elected to stay within the Commonwealth had led some imperialists to assume a substantive continuity between it and the old empire: with the black and brown nations joining Australia, New Zealand and Canada in an extended family cemented by common bonds of tradition, friendship and mutual interest. They believed that the whole structure could be a force to be reckoned with in the world still. The old imperialists retained a sentimental affection for it and sought to cement its parts more tightly together, through trade preferences for Commonwealth countries, and by preserving the definition of ‘British nationality’ which had been laid down in 1948, allowing all Commonwealth citizens the right to enter Britain freely, without restriction.

‘Common citizenship’ was meant to symbolise the continuing unity, and hence the strength of ‘Empire into Commonwealth’. But by the sixties, it had become abundantly clear that the Commonwealth was turning out to be something less than the sum of its countries. Its members did not have common interests, not even the ‘white’ dominions among them, which were too far apart geographically, if not politically. For the black and brown nations, their membership was not an expression of filial gratitude and loyalty. Rather it provided merely a convenient platform on the world stage from which they could air their grievances against Britain and demand a share of whatever British aid was available. The Commonwealth was never united. Its new members fought each other, broke off diplomatic relations with each other and with the ‘mother country’. In 1971, at a conference in Singapore, they sent Edward Heath into a ‘huff’ by criticising him over the issue of supplying arms to South Africa, which had been forced out of the association in 1961. Clearly, this new organisation was of little use as a means of exerting British power and influence in the world.

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There were some in public life who continued to value the new Commonwealth, but as something rather different from the old empire: as an informal debating club for widely divergent cultures, a possible means of scaling the barriers of racism and chauvinism going up all over the world, an example to the world of how different countries and continents could get along together even if they could not agree together, a corrective to the contemporary  consolidation of the world into continental blocs. Alongside the idealistic old imperialists, there were also anti-imperialist Fabians who were genuinely interested in questions of international co-operation and foreign aid. When a television series about the British Empire in 1972 provoked a flood of letters to the newspapers and a lengthy debate in the House of Lords, most of the letters and many of the speeches betraying an almost personal sense of injury, it was clear that there had been a ‘bottling up’ in some élite quarters of strong emotions on the issue of an Empire which some still felt had been the noblest Empire the world had ever seen. For the most part, however, the mass of the ‘ordinary’ British people cared little about it.

That the empire was almost forgotten in Britain by the seventies did not mean that it had left no marks at all, or that it was quite gone. In a strictly legalistic sense, Britain still had overseas colonies and crown dependencies. Most importantly, she still had Rhodesia, though she had been powerless to do anything there since Smith’s UDI. She also had Hong Kong, with four million inhabitants, but otherwise, the total population of all her other outposts was well under a million. These traces of empire could be irritating, but they were little more. They were not the significant remains of empire. For all parties concerned, however, the British empire left a legacy which was substantial and lasting, though it was not one which was altogether predictable or intended. In 1969 Professor Max Beloff warned that the loss of empire might make Britain parochial and bitter:

We now face … the danger of a sudden and total revulsion against anything that reminds us of past advantages and past glories, a sudden shift into an isolationist little-Englandism with unhealthy overtones of xenophobia and even racialism accompanying it.

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The treatment most frequently prescribed for Britain’s post-imperial trauma was to join the European Economic Community, to give Britain a new European vision to compensate for the loss of its imperial one and a share in something big again. But when Britain eventually joined in January 1973, it was with a sullenness and singular lack of enthusiasm and public support which was attributed by other countries to her unwillingness to shake off her imperial past, and accept that she was now, like France, just an ordinary European nation. This excuse was widely seized on by British observers too. During the 1970s the view that Britain had wasted her first twenty-five post-war years clinging nostalgically to outworn imperial glories became something of an established orthodoxy. Nicholas Henderson, a retiring ambassador, recollected in 1979:

We had… every western European government eating out of our hand in the immediate aftermath of war. For several years our prestige and influence were paramount and we could have stamped Europe as we wished.

But the opportunity was allowed to pass, as the British spurned the Schuman Plan, with the result that Europe eventually formed its own ‘community’ of nations without reference to Britain. That was why when Britain joined that community later, its terms were so unfavourable to her. There were a number of reasons for Britain’s blunder, but the chief ones were her loyalty to her Commonwealth and the illusion that she still had a global role. These were clearly both legacies of empire, and extremely damaging ones. Britain’s subsequent fractious position within the EEC and her 2016 Referendum decision to leave derives from the fact that her old imperial blinkers led her to read the signs of the times too late. These conclusions are currently too controversial to go into in detail here, especially as neither the chronicles nor the narratives are yet complete, but it is interesting to note how ubiquitous it was in the 1970s, especially in the view of the empire as a kind of ghostly dragon Britain’s coat-tails after the vision had died among imperialists. The bright new cause of ‘Europeanism’ gave light to a new generation as the liberal and internationalist antidote to imperialism, but the old empire continued to cast a long shadow over British politics.

It was also widely blamed for Britain’s economic decline, as we have seen. Britain had been falling behind the other industrial powers for many years before 1970. After that year, however, the situation got worse. After twenty years of full employment, minimal inflation and rising standards of living, which buffered the social impact of Britain’s relative decline, it became associated with mass unemployment, high inflation and lower living standards once again. But it was also a common ploy in the 1970s to put the blame on the empire for Britain’s managerial shortcomings. The argument was that the service of the empire had somehow displaced the running of manufacturing industry as an object of ambition for the younger generations of the middle classes. As one public school headmaster put it in 1980, Britain’s imperial experience had left her with too many ‘prefects’ and not enough ‘pirates’ for the post-imperial age. In the past, Sir Keith Joseph once said, Britain’s trouble had been that it had never had a proper capitalist ruling class; in 1979 the government of which he was a member sought consciously to remedy this. Back in the days of the oil crisis of 1973-74, it was obvious that if Britain had still been able to dictate policy in the Persian Gulf, the West could not have been ‘held to ransom’ and neither could the miners have done the same to Heath’s government. Yet asked by some Gallup pollsters whether they thought it was important for Britain to retain her status as a major world power, only thirty per cent replied ‘yes’ in 1975 compared with fifty-five per cent ten years earlier. Significantly, this was also the year in which the British people expressed their ‘will’ in Wilson’s Referendum to remain in the EEC, by a similar majority of two to one. The imperial ‘game’ was over, though it would be remembered with nostalgia by many for decades to come. As Bernard Porter has commented, even cricket became commercialised and vulgarized in the 1970s in the wake of the decline of the old imperialist ‘fuddy-duddies’ in the MCC (Marylebone Cricket Club).

Sources:

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

Joanna Bourke, Sabine Wichert, Roger Middleton, John Swift (contributors) (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British and Irish History. London: Penguin Books.

Bernard Porter (1984), The Lion’s Share: A Short History of British Imperialism, 1850-1983. Harlow: Longman.

Britain Sixty Years Ago (IV): Global ties & ‘A little local difficulty’.   Leave a comment

Looking more broadly, in the mid-fifties Britain was still a world-wide player, connected and modern. Her major companies were global leaders in oil, tobacco, shipping and finance. The Empire was not quite gone, even though the new name of ‘Commonwealth’ was more widely used in official circles. Britain was not a country closed to foreign influence, whether from America or Italy or Scandinavia. Something first promoted as ‘Italian Welsh rarebit’, later known as ‘pizza’ was in evidence. The idea of a powerful, self-confident Britain, independent of American cultural influence, seemed not only possible but likely. Per capita, Britain was still the second richest country in the world.

However, after the Suez Crisis, Britain would no longer possess independent power or influence in the Middle East. The age of American power there, based on support for Israel and the oil alliance with the Saudi Royal Family, took the place of British hegemony. Suez also provoked the arrival of the Mini car, designed in the wake of the petrol price shock caused by the seizure of the canal. Macmillan replaced Eden as PM and decided to remain in the tiny nuclear club as a cheaper alternative to imperial swagger. He authorised the first British H-bomb explosion at Christmas Island in May 1957. It was partly a fake, a hybrid bomb intended to fool the US into thinking its ally was further ahead than it really was. The next year, at a crucial showdown between British and American scientists in Washington, the British Aldermaston team persuaded Edward Teller’s Los Alamos men that Britain was just as far advanced as the US in the field of nuclear weaponry.

The major international event of 1957 was the signing of the Treaty of Rome, the beginning of what we know today as the European Union.The continental negotiators were shocked and disappointed by Britain’s lack of serious interest, but the six founding members shrugged off Britain’s attitude. They were still rebuilding shattered cities and healing torn economies, and for them the coming of the ‘community’ was manifest destiny. Coming so soon after Suez it provoked increasingly agitated head-scratching in Whitehall.

For Britain, the world was still differently shaped. The Commonwealth was then more than a worthy outreach programme for the Royal Family. Its food and raw materials poured into Britain and there was an illusion that Britain’s manufacturing future would be secured by selling industrial goods to South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Canada. Out would flow engines, cars, clothing, aircraft and electronics, in exchange for butter, oil, meat, aluminium, rubber, tobacco and wood-pulp. The poorer members of the sterling club kept their reserves in London, so Britain acted as banker as well as manufacturer for much of Africa and parts of Asia. Most people believed that to cut adrift the Commonwealth and join a new club would be economically ruinous as well as immoral. For Labour, Harold Wilson told the Commons that if there has to be a choice, we are not entitled to sell our friends and kinsmen down the river for a problematical and marginal advantage in selling washing machines to Dusseldorf. Later, Hugh Gaitskell told the Labour Conference that membership of the European Economic Community would mean an end to a thousand years of history:

How can one seriously suppose that if the mother country, the centre of the Commonwealth, is a province of Europe… it could continue to exist as the mother country of a series of independent nations?

At the same time, the European market, thirsting for new consumer goods, was growing spectacularly fast, while the Commonwealth trading group was by comparison falling behind. Most of the smaller countries did not want Britain anyway and the richer nations of the Commonwealth would soon turn to the United States for their consumer goods.

Yet membership of the EEC would subordinate Britain to the continent in other important ways. It was recognised from this earliest date that sovereignty and independence would be lost. Other forms of subordination and loss of independence had already happened, however. The foundation of the United Nations and the establishment of NATO had involved the relinquishing of traditional freedoms of action. Nevertheless, Europe was something different. Those who had looked clearly at the Treaty of Rome were struck by its overwhelming ambition. Lord Kilmuir, Macmillan’s Lord Chancellor, told him that Parliament would lose powers to the Council of Ministers whose majority vote could change British law; that the Crown’s power over treaties would partly shift to Brussels and that British courts would find themselves in part subordinate to the European Court of Justice. Macmillan himself tended to brush these concerns aside with reassuring words, trying to keep everyone happy, but Kilmuir was joined by Lord Home, the future  PM, in giving outspoken warnings.

Had Britain been involved in the European adventure from the start, as the French had initially wanted, the EEC and the EU might well have evolved differently. There would certainly have been less emphasis on agricultural protection and more on free trade. ‘Europe’ might have appeared to be a little less mystical and a little more open and democratic. Even after the shock and humiliation of Suez, the Commonwealth and Anglo-American relations still took precedence for London. Macmillan’s team, centred on Edward Heath, hoped that somehow the trading system of the Commonwealth supporting English-speaking farmers from across the world could be accommodated by the protectionist system in Europe. They seem to have thought that any loss of sovereignty would be tolerable if such a deal could be struck. Macmillan had nothing like the reverence for the House of Commons felt by Enoch Powell, on one side of that House, or by Hugh Gaitskell on the other. Meanwhile, Britain’s struggle to keep up in the nuclear race led to private Anglo- American negotiations which infuriated the French. After the Treaty of Rome took effect at the beginning of 1958, French attitudes hardened with the return of General de Gaulle as President, determined that the new continental system would be dominated by France and would exclude the Anglo-Saxons.

1957 was also the year in which some Tories first began to break with the Keynesian economics of the post-war consensus in favour of a return to their older doctrines of economic liberalism. Antony Fisher, a chicken-farmer and utterly self-certain individualist and anti-socialist, had made enough money to found the Institute of Economic Affairs, undoubtedly the most influential think-tank in modern British history. Set up by Fisher and the Liberal, Oliver Smedley, the IEA was intended to combat the socialist influence of the Fabians. It first began to influence British politics during the winter of 1957-8, when inflation was rising above 4% and wage settlements were in double figures. Macmillan was worried about the confrontation which might emerge from cut-backs and unemployment, and he had many spending ministers, taking care of the armed forces, hospitals and welfare who were strongly opposed to cutting back. On the other side of the argument were the Chancellor, Peter Thorneycroft, and his two junior Treasury ministers – Nigel Birch and Enoch Powell. They insisted that it was vital to control the money supply, a position advocated by the IEA. They put together a planned series of cuts which included a fifty per cent rise in the cost of school meals, freezes on pay rises and the removal of family allowances for the second child.  It would have hit five million families, including millions of middle-class mothers whose support the Tories needed. In the end, the Treasury team lost the battle in cabinet and all three resigned. Macmillan dismissed the whole matter as a little local difficulty. Yet it marked a turning point, away from the ideas of free marketeers and towards the last phase of the planning economy and, eventually, to Thatcherism. In the Thatcher Government, Lord Thorneycroft became Chairman of the Conservative Party.

Source:

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

 

Britain Sixty Years Ago (III): Never so good or ‘candy-floss culture’?   Leave a comment

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Despite the evidence of the destruction of traditional social relations brought about by high-rise housing developments, there are plenty of other sources which suggest that, behind the new consumer goods and gadgets, the stubborn continuities of working-class life and culture survived the 1950s. But ‘community’, a notion which is unthinkable in English social experience without the context of the typical working-class neighbourhood, became a matter of widespread and fundamental concern. Behind the clear manifestations of change there emerged the question as to whether, as the conditions and patterns of social life for working people changed, with their increased wages being poured into the new consumer goods, people might be uprooted from the life they had known and largely made for themselves, and transplanted in another one largely made for them by ‘others’. This might involve a move not just from one social class to another, but also from the class ‘ideal’ of solidarity, neighbourliness and collectivity to that of individuality, social struggle to ‘keep up’ and ‘get on’. People became visibly and audibly more middle class, determined to ‘keep themselves to themselves’.

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Above: The Willenhall Estate in Coventry, in its early days in the late 1950s. By the 1980s, it was commonly considered one of the poorest, most run-down estates in the city.

Were working-class people losing their ‘togetherness’? Did a bit of ‘do-it-yourself’ around the house signify ‘privatisation’? There were still many working-class families living in one room, with damp walls, no running water, no bathrooms, and with three or more families sharing one outside toilet (see the picture of Spon Street, Coventry, above-top, now part of a tourist attraction!) Composite social images, constructed out of a very partial experience of one corner of the South-east, utterly failed to represent how far a ‘prehistoric age’ still survived in most other places. Entering a sort of ‘affluence’, Britain was, at the same time, trying to comprehend what ‘affluence’ was all about. It was tempting to associate it with the visible indices of change on the surface of society, rather than with any ‘real movement’ underneath. It was a temptation which almost everyone fell into. In this way, the ‘myths of affluence’ became inextricably interwoven with the contradictory experience of affluence.

The other reason for this confusion was the advent of television. The spread of BBC television had happened only in the early fifties, followed by the opening of the commercial ITV channel in 1955. This development fed the confused situation in two ways. First, by monopolising the channels of public discussion and debate in society, television also centralised the power to make its images of social life stick. It communicated, at very rapid speed, highly selective and distorted images of one community or section of society to the others. It also helped to promote an overall image of where the whole society was headed. Secondly, it gave an almost tangible visibility to the quite limited rise in consumption and in spending money. It promoted the new consumer products seeking markets among the working classes by creating the spectacular world of commodities. Advertising and the spurious social images which it portrayed represented only one way in which television helped to disguise the deeper sources of change which underlay society.

The extent to which this imagery of consumption entered the lives and imaginations of ordinary men and women now seems, in retrospect, to have been wildly exaggerated. Where people could test ‘images’ against ‘experience’, life may have felt glossier than before, but Richard Hoggart, writing in The Uses of Literacy, called it a candy-floss culture. It is doubtful whether many people thought they were on the threshold of a new Utopia of affluence. The ‘telly’ made a difference, but it did not suddenly dismantle working-class culture, rooted as it was in the persistent structures of the British class system.

In one section of the population, however, change was registering in a strong and visible way: among the young. For ordinary young people, the war – which they had experienced, if at all, as young children – really did divide history into ‘before’ and ‘after’; they, of course, belonged to ‘after’. This made for a strong generational division between adults and ‘youth’. While incomes had improved only a little for many working people, they had increased at a faster rate for young adults; and since their families had greater economic security than before the war, a higher proportion of what they earned was left over for spending on themselves, their own recreations and pursuits. ‘Affluent Britain’ was not a society which allowed spare cash to accumulate in anyone’s pockets for very long. The surplus in the pockets and purses of young working-class people was quickly funnelled into the new industries servicing working-class leisure, and distinctive youth styles marked the late 1950s, and ‘youth’ itself became a metaphor for social change.  Yet no-one changed their life-situation by becoming a Teddy Boy or a Mod. The more permanent route up and out of the working class into the professional ranks was via the ‘Eleven Plus’, the Grammar School and University, but far fewer could take this route. The social and personal costs for the first generation ‘scholarship’ boys and girls were punishing – the loss of roots, of a sense of connection with the life of the community and even with their own families.

For the ‘modern Conservative’, these changes represented the de-proletarianisation of British society, changes which would transform social and industrial attitudes of mind. One ‘old’ Conservative who fully absorbed this message was the Prime Minister himself, Harold Macmillan, who uttered the following memorable words during a speech at Bedford in July 1957:

Indeed, let us be frank about it: most of our people have never had it so good. Go round the country, go to the industrial towns, go to the farms, and you will see a state of prosperity such as we have never had in my life-time – nor indeed in the history of this country.

When he went to the country two years later, it was behind the slogan, You’ve had it good. Have it better. Vote Conservative. This was a clever illusion, but it contained just enough truth to cut through to ordinary voters. By the late fifties, almost everything had changed for the better – but, in reality, only a little. No segment of society, no corner of the nation, no aspect of life remained untouched. One part of the story was the story of change, of emergent patterns, of new relationships and conditions of work and life for ordinary men and women, of a, of a sense of discontinuity with the past. Change is not always comfortable to live with, and not always easy to understand; in the ‘affluent’ society which threw up such paradoxical signals, it was easy to project the problems which life presented into simple and stereotypical remedies. But in doing so it revealed that this was not yet a social revolution. The change of the late fifties left so much exactly where it was. The more things changed, the more they stayed the same. Ordinary men and women were caught somewhere inside this paradox, between two worlds.

Source:

Theo Baker (ed.) (1975, ’78), The Long March of Everyman. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

 

More Portraits and Documents on Palestine, Zionism & Israel   1 comment

The British Labour Party & Palestine-Israel in the Past, 1919-49

This is my third contribution to the debate on anti-Semitism and Zionism in the Labour Party with reference to the documentary evidence of the early twentieth century. The Proclamation of Independence of the state of Israel was published on 14 May 1948, almost exactly 68 years ago. The Provisional State Council was the forerunner of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. The British Mandate was terminated the following day, which was also the day on which the armed forces of Transjordan, Egypt, Syria and other Arab countries entered Palestine. The Proclamation began with the Biblical claim of the Jewish people to the land of Israel, though it is worth noting that a state or kingdom of Israel only existed in the northern part of these lands for about four centuries before the Roman occupation of the time of Christ, Judea and Samaria being the other main territories in which the Jewish people lived. The diaspora of the Jews around the Mediterranean had also begun well before the first century, although it accelerated following the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in circa 70 A.D.  The Proclamation  went on to trace the development of the Zionist movement from the First Zionist Congress of 1897, which was inspired by Theodor Herzl’s vision of The Jewish State, which proclaimed the right of the Jewish people to national revival in their own country. This right was acknowledged by the Balfour Declaration of 2 November 1917, and re-affirmed by the Mandate of the League of Nations following the post-World War One peace treaties which established the League. The Mandate, given over to British administration in 1920, gave explicit international recognition to the historic connection of the Jewish people with Palestine and the right to reconstitute their National Home. 

Above: Faisal IBN-Hussein, King of Greater Syria, 1920 & Iraq, 1921-33 (on the left with the Arab delegation at the Paris Peace Conference, including T E Lawrence, third from right).

During the Paris Peace Conference, which commenced in the Spring of 1919, relations between the Arab Delegation, led by Faisal IBN-Hussein, and the Zionists, led by Felix Frankfurter, were very cordial. Feisal wrote to Frankfurter at the beginning of March to reiterate what he had often been able to say to Dr Weizmann in Arabia and Europe:

We feel that the Arabs and Jews are cousins in race, having suffered similar oppressions at the hands of powers stronger than themselves, and by a happy coincidence have been able to take the first step towards the attainment of their national ideals together.

We Arabs, especially the educated among us, look with the deepest sympathy on the Zionist movement. Our deputation here in Paris is fully acquainted with the proposals submitted… by the Zionist Organisation to the Peace Conference, and we regard them as moderate and proper. We will do our best, in so far as we are concerned, to help them through: we will wish the Jews a most hearty welcome home… The Jewish movement is national and not imperialist. Our movement is national and not imperialist… neither can be a real success without the other.

People less informed and less responsible than our leaders and yours, ignoring the need for cooperation of the Arabs and Zionists have been trying to exploit the local difficulties that must necessarily arise in Palestine in the early stages of our movements. Some of them have… misrepresented your aims to the Arab peasantry, and our aims to the Jewish peasantry, with the result that interested parties have been able to make capital out of what they call our differences… these differences are not on questions of principle but on matters of detail such as must inevitably occur in every contact of neighbouring peoples, and are easily adjusted by mutual goodwill.

Felix Frankfurter adopted a similarly conciliatory tone in his reply on behalf of the Zionist Organisation:

We knew… that the aspirations of the Arab and the Jewish peoples were parallel, that each aspired to reestablish its nationality in its own homeland, each making its own distinctive contribution to civilisation, each seeking its own peaceful mode of life.

The Zionist leaders and the Jewish people for whom they speak have watched with satisfaction the spiritual vigour of the Arab movement. Themselves seeking justice, they are anxious that the national aims of the Arab people be confirmed and safeguarded by the Peace Conference.

We know from your acts and your past utterances that the Zionist movement – in other words the aims of the Jewish people – had your support and the support of the Arab people for whom you speak. These aims are now before the Peace Conference as definite proposals of the Zionist Organisation. We are happy indeed that you consider these proposals “moderate and proper,” and that we have in you a staunch supporter for their realisation. For both the Arab and the Jewish peoples there are difficulties ahead – difficulties that challenge the united statesmanship of Arab and Jewish leaders. For it is no easy task to rebuild two great civilisations that have been suffering oppression and misrule for centuries… The Arabs and Jews are neighbours in the territory; we cannot but live side by side as friends… 

Above: Chaim Weizmann & Felix Frankfurter

As an essential part of their quest for a homeland in Palestine the Jews sought the active support of the British Government delegation and, in particular, that of the British Foreign Secretary, Arthur J Balfour, author of the 1917 Declaration which had given them hope that this would become a reality. In a memo by Felix Frankfurter of an interview with him and Justice Brandeis in Balfour’s Paris apartment on 24 June 1919, the Foreign Secretary is recorded as expressing entire agreement with three conditions that stated:

First that Palestine should be the Jewish homeland and not merely that there should be a Jewish homeland in Palestine… Secondly there must be economic elbow room for a Jewish Palestine… That meant adequate boundaries, not merely a small garden within Palestine… Thirdly… that the future Jewish Palestine must have control of the land and the natural resources which are at the heart of a sound economic life.  

However, Balfour pointed out the difficulties which confronted the British, especially the fact that Faisal was a ‘comrade in arms’ and that he interpreted British action and words as a promise of either Arab independence or Arab rule under British protection. Nevertheless, he added:

No statesman could have been more sympathetic… with the underlying philosophy and aims of Zionism as they were stated…, nor more eager that the necessary conditions should be secured at the hands of the Peace Conference and of Great Britain to assure the realisation of the Zionist programme.

However, as opposition to Zionism grew among the Arab population under British rule in the early 1920s, a new policy was drafted by Winston Churchill, then the British Colonial Secretary, which, while not explicitly opposing the idea of a Jewish state, redeemed the Balfour promise in depreciated currency, to quote a contemporary British source. Churchill’s White Paper of June 1922 made it clear that The Balfour Declaration had been subjected to exaggerated interpretations such as given in the phrase “as Jewish as England is English” in connection with the intentions of the British government. This, Churchill stated flatly, was not the aim of HM’s Government, which was neither contemplating the disappearance or subordination of the Arabic population, language, or culture in Palestine. He reminded those who suggested this to be the case, among both Arabs and Jews, that the Declaration did not state that Palestine as a whole should be converted into a Jewish National Home,  but that such a Home should be found in Palestine. This clearly contradicted the conditions set down in Frankfurter’s memo of Balfour’s Paris interview, but Churchill went on to quote the resolution of the Zionist Organisation’s Congress held at Carlsbad in September 1921, which had expressed…

… the determination of the Jewish people to live with the Arab people on terms of unity and mutual respect, and together with them to make the common home into a flourishing community, the upbuilding of which may assure to each of its peoples an undisturbed national development. 

Churchill also clarified that the Zionist Organisation was to have no special role in the running of the administration of Palestine under the British Mandate and that the citizens of Palestine, whatever their ethnicity or religion, would remain Palestinian. Jewish immigration was to continue in keeping with the economic capacity of the country. The immigrants should not be a burden to the people of Palestine as a whole, nor should they deprive any section of the current population of their employment. Against this background, by the mid-twenties, there were those within the Labour Party, like Beatrice Webb, who began to question the aims of the Zionist movement:

… I admire Jews and dislike Arabs. But the Zionist movement seems to me a gross violation of the right of the native to remain where he was born and his father and grandfather were born – if there is such a right. To talk about the return of the Jew to the land of his inheritance after an absence of two thousand years seems to me sheer… hypocritical nonsense. From whom were descended those Russian and Polish Jews? The principle which is really being asserted is the principle of selecting races for particular territories according to some ‘peculiar needs or particular fitness’. Or it may be some ideal of communal life to be realised by subsidised migration. But this process of artificially creating new communities of immigrants, brought from many parts of the world, is rather hard on the indigenous natives!

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Clearly, Sidney Webb (pictured right) shared views of his wife, Beatrice on Zionism, as five years later he was in the first majority Labour government of 1929-31, Sidney Webb as Colonial Secretary, by then under the title ‘Lord Passfield’. Following the Arab riots of 1929, the ‘Passfield White Paper’ was published in 1930, urging restrictions on immigration of Jews, and on land sales to them. When this was bitterly denounced by the Zionist leaders as a violation of the Mandate, Ramsay MacDonald wrote to Chaim Weizmann in February 1931 to reassure him of the good faith of HM’s Government. Although it did not openly repudiate the Passfield Report, the PM’s letter was rejected by the Arabs as the “Black Paper” as it clearly defined the mainstream Labour view of Zionism. The Report had been widely criticised for making ‘injurious allegations’ against the Jewish people and Jewish labour organisations. Today, we might describe these as being anti-Semitic. Quite clearly, as leader of the party and PM, MacDonald felt he had to act quickly to allay these concerns. In his speech in the House of Commons on 3 April 1930, MacDonald had given his ‘double undertaking’ to the Jewish and non-Jewish populations of Palestine (see my previous post) which contained a promise to ‘do equal justice’ to both. This, he now declared, was the most effectual means of furthering the establishment of a national home for the Jews.

He emphasised that the government did not contemplate immigration controls beyond those introduced by Churchill in 1922, governed purely by economic considerations. There was to be a continuation of labour scheduling of Jewish wage-earning immigrants for private works which depended mainly on Jewish capital and the availability of Jewish labour. Public works were to be organised on the basis of private Jewish contributions to public revenue, to allow for a ‘due share’ of employment for Jewish workers. Otherwise, account was to be taken of unemployment among both Jews and Arabs. However, The Jewish Agency insisted that, as a matter of principle, asserted the policy that only Jewish labour would be employed by Jewish organisations. MacDonald asserted that the British government would seek to amend this policy if Arab unemployment became ‘aggravated.’ In words which could still be applied to the Labour Party policy today, MacDonald concluded his letter by reaffirming the government’s ‘unqualified recognition’ that no solution can be satisfactory or permanent which is not based upon justice, both to the Jewish people and to the non-Jewish communities of Palestine.

The MacDonald letter aimed to placate the Zionists while disturbing as the Arabs as little as possible. When many Zionists took the letter as a withdrawal of the white paper, however, it became labelled the ‘black paper’ by Arabs. By confirming that the policy of the Palestine Mandate was to continue to support Jewish immigration, the Letter in effect negated some of the implications of the White Paper and facilitated increasing immigration during the growth of anti-Semitism in Europe in the 1930s. Of course, the line between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism had already become a blurred one in British politics, as the Passfield White Paper shows. Webb was not the only baronet in the Labour Cabinet. Sir Oswald Moseley, sixth baronet, stuck out like a sore thumb in the House of Commons. At first he was a Conservative, but fell foul of the Tory establishment and joined the Labour Party. When he failed to get J H Thomas, the useless Minister of Labour, to do something about the unemployed, Mosley produced his plan for increased allowances and public works, but it was rejected in the crisis of 1931. Mosley walked out to form his ‘New Party’, taking with him some of the more left-wing Labour MPs like John Strachey. When the government fell in August 1931, Strachey and Webb wrote Marxist books and seemed to hover between Mosley’s growing support for National Socialism, which culminated in the founding of the British Union of Fascists, and becoming apologists for Stalin’s USSR which, in the early thirties, was at least as anti-Semitic as Germany. There was little the Labour Party could do to resist the rise of anti-Semitism in Britain, either on the streets of the East End of London, or within its own ultra-left ranks. In fact, in trying to formulate a clear-cut alternative to ‘MacDonaldism’ it strengthened its own left-wing and, for a time, its links with Soviet communism. It also took the British left until at least 1934 to realise that the title of Hitler’s National Socialist Party was extremely misleading, and that what Hitler himself stood for was paranoid nationalism, racialism and militarism , with the Jews as the internal scapegoats. Similarly, Mosley’s powerful corporatist ideas attracted considerable support among the middle and working classes in 1932, including from Labour and Conservative MPs, from Aneurin Bevan to Harold Macmillan. Even after his New Party merged with the BUF in that year, his protectionist policies continued to attract support until they were overshadowed by the thuggish actions of his blackshirts at the Olympia rally in June 1934, soon followed by the Night of the Long Knives in Germany, in which the Nazi Party clearly ‘purged’ itself of its socialist faction. This confusion between right-wing and left-wing politics is evident in journalist Rene Cutforth’s eye-witness accounts of the period from both the British and German capitals:

It was an age addicted to psychological explanations, but I never heard the nature of Mosley’s audiences satisfactorily explained. Who were these people who submitted themselves night after night to this exhibition of terrorism and tyranny?  They looked middle-aged on the whole and seemed to be enveloped in general and political apathy, yet they kept on coming.

The Communists and the Fascists met and fought from time to time, but the habit never became a public menace as it was in Berlin in the early Thirties, when it was extremely easy for anybody, particularly at night, to be caught up in some skirmish between Nazis and Communists and be beaten up or, quite often, never heard of again.

Nonetheless, this confusion of extreme, authoritarian politics of the right and left in British politics in the early thirties was, undoubtedly, a significant factor in the failure of the mainstream Labour movement to stem the growth of anti-Semitism among its own traditional supporters and voters. Similarly, much of the international socialist reaction to Zionism throughout the decade meant that, although the British people were very welcoming to the Kindertransport and to Jewish refugees in general, the National government was able to finally wriggle free from the terms of its Palestine mandate. Another White Paper was published in May 1939 giving into Arab demands and limiting Jewish immigration to fifteen thousand for the next five years. I have referred to this in more detail in my previous post, together with the furious reaction of the Jewish Agency, but this was a fury which did not abate during the following three years. During a visit to the United States by David Ben Gurion, Chairman of the Executive of the Jewish Agency, Zionist policy was reformulated. At a conference at the Biltmore Hotel in New York in May 1942, the establishment of a Jewish state was envisaged to open the doors of Palestine to Jewish refugees escaping from Nazi terror and to lay the foundations for the future settlement of a Jewish majority.  The Declaration adopted by the Extraordinary Zionist Conference affirmed its rejection of the 1939 White Paper and denied its moral or legal validity. It quoted Churchill’s speech in the House of Commons from May 1939, in which he claimed that the Paper constituted a breach and repudiation of the Balfour Declaration. Furthermore, it stated,

The policy of the White Paper is cruel and indefensible in its denial of sanctuary to Jews fleeing from Nazi persecution…

The Conference urges that the gates of Palestine be opened: that the Jewish Agency be vested with control of immigration into Palestine and with the necessary authority for upbuilding the country, including the development of its unoccupied and uncultivated lands: and that Palestine be established as a Jewish Commonwealth integrated in the structure of the new democratic world.

Then and only then will the age-old wrong to the Jewish people be righted.

Following the war, and the holocaust, an Anglo-American Committee of Enquiry was appointed in November 1945 to examine the status of the Jews in the former Axis-occupied countries (see my previous post). The Labour Government decided to invite US participation in finding a solution. Prime Minister Clement Attlee, perhaps mindful of the reservations about abandoning the immigration controls of 1939, of his Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, declared that the report would have to be considered as a whole for its implications. The report recommended that a hundred thousand Jewish refugees should immediately be awarded settlement papers in 1946, commenting that the actual number of Nazi and Fascist persecutions was well in excess of this:

Indeed, there are more than that number in Germany, Austria and Italy alone. Although nearly a year has passed since their liberation, the majority of those in Germany and Austria are still living in assembly centres, the so-called “camps,” island communities in the midst of those at whose hands they suffered so much.

In their interests and the interests of Europe, the centres should be closed and their camp life ended. Most of them have cogent reasons for wishing to leave Europe. Many are the sole survivors of their families and few have any ties binding them to the countries in which they used to live.

Since the end of hostilities, little has been done to provide for their resettlement elsewhere. Immigration laws and restrictions bar their entry to most countries and much time must pass before such laws and restrictions can be altered and effect given to the alterations.

Some may go to countries where they have relatives; others may secure inclusion in certain quotas. Their number is comparatively small.

We know of no country to which the great majority can go in the immediate future other than Palestine. Furthermore, that is where almost all of them want to go. There they are sure that they will receive a welcome denied them elsewhere. There they hope to enjoy peace and rebuild their lives.

From this report we can clearly see that Ken Livingstone’s recent assertion that the post-war refugees could all have been absorbed by European countries flies in the face of all the contemporary evidence revealing the reality of their predicament, even had they wanted to be resettled in these countries. Immigration to and settlement within Palestine was the only realistic option to spending years in camps. Thus, apart from their historic connection with the country, and their right of access, shared with Christians and Muslims, to its holy places, the Jewish people had, the report concluded, also secured the right to continued existence, protection and development.  

002 (4)

Various models were considered in the report for the future state(s) of Palestine, including a bi-national state, a federation of states, and partition into two or more states. Ernest Bevin, the British Foreign Secretary (pictured below), eventually announced on 14 February 1947 that the British government had decided to refer the problem to the United Nations. Bevin himself was against partition since, he said, the Arabs would never agree to two states being formed, so they would be unviable from the beginning. The United Nations duly set up a special committee of eleven member states (UNSCOP), which reported on 31 August 1947. The Jewish Agency accepted its partition plan as the indispensable minimum, but, as Bevin had predicted, the Arab governments rejected it. The UN General Assembly approved the recommendation in November 1947, by a two-thirds majority which included both the USA and the USSR, but not Britain. The British Mandate ended on 15 May 1948, the day after the Proclamation of the State of Israel, and on the same day as the armed forces of neighbouring Arab states entered Palestine.

001 (5)

In these immediate post-war years, Ernest Bevin had been regarded by many Jews in Britain, the United States and Israel as an ‘arch-enemy’ of the Jewish people; and his action on the report of the Anglo-American Commission, and again on the resolution of the United Nations Assembly in 1947, his delay in recognising the State of Israel until February 1949, and some bitter remarks he made in the House of Commons’ debates on Palestine, seemed to justify that contemporary view. However, Lord Strang, the Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office for the greater part of Bevin’s term as Foreign Secretary, has suggested that his opposition to the State of Israel was due to his preoccupation with longer-term political, economic and strategic considerations:

He was disturbed by fear of active Soviet involvement in Middle East affairs, and foresaw that the persisting Arab-Jewish antagonism would be exploited by Moscow to the detriment of vital Western interests.

In this respect, Bevin’s analysis was correct, but this did not make him anti-Zionist, or by extension, anti-Semitic. Norman Leftwich, writing in 1962 about his Seventy Seven Years as a diplomat, argued that his talks with Bevin in London and Paris between 1946 and 1948, confirmed Strang’s judgement:

He was, I believe, anxious at the outset to find a solution to the conflict, and confident that he would succeed, as he had many bitter Labour disputes… But at least, when he did recognise the State in 1949, he did  his best to foster afresh good relations between Great Britain and Israel; and he made a vain attempt to bring Jews and Arabs together.

A Summary and Some Conclusions:

What lessons can we learn from these thirty years, which can inform the attitude and policy of the Labour Party today towards the Israel-Palestine question, anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism? Firstly, it does not serve the party’s needs to try to relate anti-Semitism to other forms of discrimination on either racial or religious grounds. If we want to deal will these evils, or diseases, at root, then we need to understand the distinct historical nature of those roots. We need to understand that Jews and Arabs are both Semites, in ethnicity and language, and that until 1919 they had both suffered equally at the hands of an imperial regime in Palestine, as Palestinians, and that the Jews had also suffered both formal and informal discrimination in a variety of European countries, while also being well-integrated into some, e.g. Austria-Hungary. Zionism, the determination to create a Jewish homeland in Palestine, was the ambition of a minority of Jews in Europe and America until a policy of ethnic cleansing was adopted by some of the totalitarian regimes of the 1930s. For a time, the determination of Zionists to emigrate to Palestine suited many within the NSDAP in Germany, but there is no evidence to suggest that Hitler himself did more than temporarily to tolerate Zionist emigration schemes. To suggest that he actively supported Zionists or Zionism is not only factually wrong, but insulting to those Jews who saved many Jewish lives. In fact, it is a deliberate anti-Semitic distortion, with the aim of devaluing the brave role played by these people during the time of the Third Reich.

During the time of the second Labour government of 1929-31, Ramsay MacDonald upheld the right of the Jewish people to their own homeland in Palestine, as originally set out in the Balfour Declaration, while at the same time affirming the need for ‘equal justice’ for Jews and Arabs. He also sought to guarantee continuing Jewish immigration to Palestine, against the wills of anti-Zionists in his own party, ensuring an escape route for many thousands of refugees until this was all but ended by the National government in 1939. At the end of the war, the Labour government, led by Attlee and Bevin, eased the restrictions on immigration while seeking a permanent solution to the problem of Palestine. Unable to get the Arab representatives to agree to either a ‘bi-national’ state, or to partition, in conjunction with the US, they then handed over the question to the United Nations. They opposed partition, the solution pased by resolution in the General Assembly, because they feared its strategic exploitation by the Soviet Union at the beginning of the Cold War. However, in 1949, they recognised the State of Israel. Despite all that has happened since then in the Arab-Israeli conflict, I believe that, with the Cold War now over, the Labour Party has no obstacle to continuing to recognise Israel, to uphold MacDonald’s principle of ‘equal justice’ for the Jews and Palestnian Arabs and to support freedom of conscience and religious practice throughout Israel-Palestine. The best means of achieving these ends at present would seem to be through a two-state solution. Acts of terrorist violence or excessive use of force by any of the current governments within the territories are open to international scrutiny, critism and condemnation, as necessary, under the terms of UN resolutions passed since 1947. However, it should be clear that the Labour Party also opposes those who call for the destruction of the State of Israel, which would involve a further genocide against the Jewish people. Such statements are, in and of themselves, anti-Semitic. It is also anti-Semitic to hold, by word or action, Jewish people generically responsible for the actions of the Israeli government of any particular day, whether they are citizens of Israel or live elsewhere in the world. In our dealings with our sister party and Labour organisations in Israel, we also need to affirm the democratic nature of the country and its constitution.

Finally, the Labour Party’s history in the 1930s should perhaps be read as a warning as to what happens when it splits into wings and factions. In the 1930s, the collapse of the party as the constitutional means for working-class representation left a vacuum in which the extremists on the left and right were able to gain support, leading to attacks on Jews and other minorities. The party was no there to defend them against unemployment and discrimination.  Added to which many who started on the left ended up on the right because of their support for the corporativist or collectivist solutions demonstrated in Berlin and Moscow.  Following a backward path of statist centralisation in the diverse economy and society of the twenty-first century could be even more disastrous for the broad cross-section of society that Labour has always sought to represent.

Sources:

René Cutforth (1976), Later Than We Thought. Newton Abbott: David & Charles.

Walter Lacqueur (1976), The Arab-Israeli Reader. New York: Bantam Books.

Michael Clark & Peter Tweed, Portraits & Documents: The Twentieth Century. London: Hutchinson.

The Latter Day Elizabethan Britons, 1952-2002: Chapter One, Part Two.   Leave a comment

Chapter One (cont.): Never Had it so Good?

 001

In the Home Counties of Southeast England, Macmillan’s Bedford speech in 1957 may have rung true, but it soon began to have a hollow ring to it, as job insecurity by the mid-sixties was replaced by the return of serious structural unemployment by the mid-seventies. Real wages grew, on average, by fifty per cent between 1951 and 1964. In Coventry, this was partly due to the strength of shop floor bargaining in the motor industry. Until the early 1960s Coventry stood in a different league of union organisation to the biggest motor manufacturers – Morris, Austin, Ford and Vauxhall. The district conditions of Coventry clearly provided a favourable environment for union development, especially the pressing demand for labour, the drive for high output and the relatively slack cost constraints on products before the 1960s. At Ford, Vauxhall and Morris’, the managements determinedly set themselves to restrict the role of unions with considerable success: the case of Herbert’s shows that such dogged resistance was probably not out of the question in Coventry either. However, at Standard management opted positively to promote certain aspects of union organisation in pursuit of wider business goals, while Rootes and Jaguar both found it convenient to abdicate large areas of traditional managerial control and allow the piecework system to act as a rough proxy for works management. In Luton, Cowley and Dagenham, wartime union development was very patchy and the unions faced a long, hard uphill slog in the postwar years before they could achieve critical mass.

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Above: The Standard Strike of 1956 as seen by the Coventry Evening Telegraph of 30 April.

Wages were undoubtedly higher in Coventry motor firms than they were elsewhere during the 1950s and 60s. Yet the caricature of the greedy Coventry car worker out for all he could get, who worked half as hard as his counterpart in Cowley and yet was more prone to strike, is at best misleading. It may have become useful to the local and national press and politicians, particularly as a way of explaining the decline of engineering in the late seventies, but it does not match the evidence of what was actually happening on the shop-floors in the period of relative prosperity which preceded it. High wages certainly made motor firms magnets of attraction for semi-skilled workers, but against a background of general shortages of engineering labour there was still intensive competition to get these jobs. They were certainly not accessible to allcomers. There were already very definite bars to the entry of women and Indian workers. Those who got into these firms then climbed a ladder of jobs, moving from firm to firm and playing the paid-up union card to secure higher-paid work. On the other hand there were periodic intakes of green labour cutting across this. For example, in 1971 there was a large-scale intake at Ryton which coincided with a slump in the nearby Hinckley hosiery trade. The result was an influx of woollybacks and knickerstitchers into the plant, though there appears to have been little difficulty in their absorption into the industrial relations traditions of the plant. Previous to this, even in the mid-sixties and even in a firm like Jaguar, half the labour force had less than five years service. The fact that there was a loss of managerial control on the shop-floor, does not mean that the converse was true.

The shop steward system under piecework was fraught with inequity, lack of security, constant haggling and divisiveness. The results of sectional, fragmented bargaining were only partly satisfactory for stewards who recognised the bargaining advantages of piecework but were also critical of the system as dog-eat-dog and in the sometimes vicious way it both drove and divided the workforce. One result of the prolonged piecework system was the chaotic and widespread use of differentials with neither a managerial nor a trade union rationality behind them. The unions were able to disrupt the differentials imposed by the management, but could not impose their own. This meant that workers at the same skill grade had widely differing earnings within the same plant as well as the same job receiving different ratings within different plants. While differentials in the American automobile industry had become highly compressed by the 1960s, they remained very wide in the British motor industry. Moreover there was no incentive or natural tendency within the piecework system to change this, and shop stewards were often bargaining to maintain differentials even among semi-skilled workers. Perhaps because the system had become so complex and confused, workers on individual piecework were ready to tolerate surprisingly wide differentials between similar jobs. In fact, stewards had more influence over the internal plant hierarchy of wages than over the absolute levels of earnings of the workforce as a whole. Neither were the stewards very effective in mitigating job insecurity and instability of earnings, except perhaps at the Standard works.

So, exactly how effective was shop floor bargaining in raising earnings and what impact did it have on the economic performance of the firms concerned? Stewards were generally unable to develop broader strategic goals. Much of their bargaining advantage in the shops derived from astute manipulation of custom and practice, but this should not be confused with unilateral regulation of conditions in the workshops. There is a general correspondence between high wages and high levels of shop-floor bargaining, but there is an unresolved question of cause and effect. Standard was the best organised firm in Coventry when it offered the highest wages during its expansion in the late forties and early fifties, but it was still the best organised when its wages fell back towards the district average under the impact of economic decline. Nor did the onset of powerful shop floor bargaining in the motor inustry nationally result in carworkers outstripping the wages of workers in other manufacturing industries.

Workers in Ford, Morris, Austin and Vauxhall were poorly organised until the late 1950s, whereas in Coventry the trades unions had consolidated their position a decade earlier. However, the extension of union organisation to Cowley, Dagenham and Luton plants did not lead to a divergence of earnings in the motor industry compared with other trades. However, whereas earnings in motors were twenty-one per cent higher than the national industrial average in the period 1949-59, rising to only twenty-four per cent between 1959 and 1963, falling back to sixteen per cent from 1964 to 1968, and recovering only slightly to nineteen per cent in 1968-73. Given that motor industry productivity was above average and that union density was growing in the period 1949-63, more quickly than in the manufacturing sector as a whole, this could be an indicator that shop floor bargaining did not have a significant comparative effect on wages. Even in the mid-sixties, the rise in average hourly earnings in motors (19.2%) was below that for engineering as a whole (20%), and marginally below that for chemicals (19.7%). The case that shop-floor bargaining was a major determinant of motor industry wage levels is a weak one.

Certainly, at least on the surface of early sixties’ society, many British people were at last able to experience the affluence that they felt was their due. By 1963, three out of every four households had a vacuum cleaner, one in three had a fridge, and one in five a washing machine. BBC TV had begun in 1936, though it had been suspended during the war. Now it went from strength to strength. In 1955, commercial television began, and by 1959 new transmitters allowed over ninety per cent of the population to receive pictures, by which time three-quarters of the population had a television set, increasing to four-fifths by 1963. In 1962, J. B. Priestley took a critical look at the state of the new medium:

Television here suffers from a false importance… Outside light entertainment, where rewarding reputations can be made, it is nothing as important as programme controllers and producers imagine it to be. One enquiry had already proved that its political influence has been enormously exaggerated. It can make reputations very quickly, but they are not solid reputations, they are easy-come-easy go… The sheer quantity of attention that television receives is of course formidable, but the quality of that attention is dubious. If it were sharper and more demanding, half the stuff – particularly all those empty interviews – would never be tolerated. Most of us – enjoying a smoke after dinner, are content to stare at programmes we would never leave the house and go fifty yards to see. We watch and listen in an idle dream, passing the time digestion takes. No urgency is communicated. We could smile or yawn at scenes of torture or murder. Very little appearing on that tiny screen in the living-room seems quite real, even less of it excitingly significant. There may be something we all watch till our eyes ache – I for one drop all work when Test Matches are being televised – but out of programmes designed to pass everybody’s time painlessly we cannot expect much that will be either urgent or delightful. Really good television, I believe, will begin when we have to pay for something, on the night, to see it. We shall give it a different kind of attention, and demand value for money.

 

Some of Priestey’s criticisms began to be addressed by programmers and programme-makers when, in 1964, BBC2 started, providing more high-brow programmes, and in 1969 colour sets were introduced. Watching television soon became the most popular leisure activity in the country, while cinema audiences declined from twenty-seven million in 1950 to under four million in 1970. For those who preferred more physically healthy activities, ten national parks had been designated between 1951 and 1957, protected fom industrial and commercial development.

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Despite these outward signs of affluence, there were also warning signs of serious weaknesses in the economy as a whole, but especially in manufacturing industries. These were largely ignored by both Conservative and Labour governments until it was too late. By the mid-sixties there were growing government pressures for engineering employers to put their houses in order and to develop more orderly systems of collective bargaining. The Labour Government which was returned in 1964, led by Harold Wilson, was particularly concerned over the inflationary risks of payment by results. However, even the Coventry District Engineering Employers Association (CDEEA) recognised in 1968 that there were advantages in the piecework systems as they allowed management to have a flexible wage system which could readily and unobtrusively be manipulated in order to improve wage levels to attract or retain labour. They also recognised, however, that it was difficult to manipulate them in a controlled fashion. This was mainly due to the fluctuating increases in output and productivity which persisted in the motor industry, partly due to fluctuating and shifting demands, particularly in Coventry’s luxury car markets.

Certainly, the unions’ near obsessive focus on sectional earnings prevented progress on wider issues such as status, overtime pay, holidays, sick pay, pensions and fringe benefits, in other words on longer-term security for the unionised workforce. In addition, the Coventry Tool Room Agreement of 1941, which was introduced to control poaching by employers of essential skilled workers under wartime conditions, or playing the market by the workers themselves, was still operating throughout the factories, holding down the wages of skilled workers by comparison with the semi-skilled pieceworkers. Toolmakers were simply paid the average wage in each factory, but did not have the same opportunity for additional payments. However, both unions and management found the Toolroom rate useful in having a publicly agreed average wage as a pace-setter and bargaining tool for pieceworkers, averting attention away from peak earnings. When the CDEEA considered terminating the agreement in 1965, the argument that it was a stabilising element and a symptom rather than a cause of wage drift led to its retention by the employers, until it was finally scrapped in 1972, when British Leyland threatened to withdraw from the Federation otherwise. It was then, belatedly accepted that its continuation would hamper the wider restructuring of payment systems in the District and there was strong pressure from the Department of Employment and Productivity to get rid of it as an anti-inflationary measure.

The widespread working of weak piecework systems in Coventry was illogical, inelegant and erratic, leading to what the Employers’ Association itself called a wider derogation of managerial control. For over twenty-five years, management paid almost no attention to the need to control the labour process, to the integration of production engineering and workshop organisation, to the flow and scheduling of production in the workshops and to front-line supervision. The role of the foreman had shrunk in status, not least because he was often paid less than the men he supervised. Management had come to believe that it was not worth wasting resources on training shop-floor supervisors. Ford, who had always operated their day-work system had one supervisor for every twenty workers, while at Rootes it was 1:50 and in the mid-sixties the Coventry average was 1:45. However, by the late sixties employers had come to realise that the haphazard operation of loosely controlled incentives were a poor substitute for a properly managed workplace. However, since they had abdicated their roles for so long, they did not realise the range of managerial tasks that they would have to face in replacing piecework. Changing the workplace culture from one of working by incentive to one of coercive practice based on established and maintained norms required specialist personnel, knowledge and training techniques to be put in place. They lacked these at the outset, and it took another decade for them to acquire them, by which time the Coventry motor and engineering industries had already been decimated in terms of employment and seemed to be on a downward spiral of almost terminal decline.

 002

Predictably, in the short-term, the Coventry car companies found themselves unable to get continued sustained effort without incentives. Stewards ceased to attempt to correct production problems as they occurred, or to chase up materials in short supply, and inferior work was allowed to go down the lines since this no longer had any impact on earnings. However, instead of the focus of bargaining being exclusively on pay, it did shift towards effort, conditions and security of earnings. Extra labour was now welcomed on the sections because it eased labour without reducing earnings. Nevertheless, it was only after several years that management began to adapt to the new tasks of maintaining the flow of materials and the continuity and quality of production. Employers also began to integrate their new payments systems with the restructuring of shop-floor organisation and managerial systems and to follow through on quality control.

The elimination of piecework curbed wide variations in wages, but also opened up new patterns of comparability bargaining. For instance, workers at Chrysler’s Linwood plant became to demand the same wage levels as existed at the Ryton plant near Coventry. At the same time, pay differentials became an intense focus of conflict and disputes, especially among craft unions representing skilled workers like the toolmakers, who now re-emerged on the bargaining scene following the abolition of the CTA. In the early seventies these groups were involved in a string of strikes that were disproportionately costly to the numbers involved as they sought to re-establish themselves in the wage tables and achieve status and bargaining rights. The operation of the Labour Government’s wage restraint policy also made it difficult to resolve conflicts, settle disputes and develop more rational pay structures. Nonetheless, the dominance of semi-skilled and unskilled production workers was eroded, partly by the redistributive effects of government incomes policies and equal pay legislation which brought significant catching up by low-paid workers in society as a whole. At the same time, after 1975, vigorous workplace bargaining by skilled workers finally successfully re-established skill differentials and took them to the top of the wages tree.

Even in the recession-hit Coventry car industry of the mid-to-late 1970s, most employers preferred to enhance the authority of senior shop-stewards and convenors in continuingly close bargaining relationships with management, dealing with more hierarchical and centralised shop-steward organisations rather than seeking to abolish them. As a result the scope of bargaining widened, albeit at the cost of more direct shop-floor democracy. This, together with the general atmosphere of economic and political crisis, has helped to channel and control sectional militancy. However, throughout the period from 1952 to 1972, sectional bargaining was always more cooperative and less confrontational than was often portrayed in the media, both at the time and in the period of crises which followed. However, such bargaining techniques were primarily opportunistic, weak on co-ordination and longer-term strategy, and paid little attention to many broader aspects of workers’ lives. It also depended, in most cases, on a weakness of management which could not persist if the industry was to survive in the competitive export market of the last quarter of the century.

 001

Two parties shared between them the government of Britain in the thirty years that followed the second world war. Both had as a prime aim the restoration and expansion of the British economy by restoring and expanding industry and exports. Perhaps we should discount the period of the post-war Labour governments of 1945-51, given the handicaps it faced both in terms of wartime debts and continuing foreign and imperial obligations. Nevertheless, by 1977 both parties had had multiple opportunities in national government to create the conditions for growth in Britain. Both failed, and by the end of the seventies the downward spiral of the British economy was accelerating out of control. The country seemed to be in terminal economic and social decline. In the debate about the conduct of public affairs throughout these years, the focus was on what the government of the day was doing, and on whether what it was doing was right or wrong for the economy. This shows how government policy and action had become central to the management and direction of the economy, even though many industrialists deplored or sought to evade this development.

P. Calvocoressi, writing at the end of this period and just before the accession of Margaret Thatcher, and taking a long view of the British economy to 1975, saw the failure of successive governments as the result of their unwillingness to dismantle the mixed economy of private and public sectors:

Every government acted within the established system. None tried radically to change it. This system was and remained a capitalist system. Labour governments made significant changes in emphasis with the system by acts of nationalisation which diminished the area of private capitalism and extended the public sector, but there had long been these two sectors and both were and remained capitalist in structure and operation. The mixed economy… was mixed in different proportions… All governments accepted an obligation to contribute positively to the prosperity of both sectors… governments provided money or facilitated credit, and with this money private and nationalised businesses would invest, modernise and grow. At the same time… governments of both colours also saw it as part of their job to intervene in economic affairs to keep wages in check, whether by bargaining with the unions or by subsidising the cost of living by law… Government intervention of this nature was inflationary… A modern democratic capitalist economy is based on inflation, and in these years the wherewithal for recovery and expansion was provided to a significant degree by government…

 

Failures in economic policy led to criticism not only of the policies of successive governments, but also of the role of Government in the economy. Whilst there had been arguments within governments over the right means to stimulate the mixed capitalist economy, no-one had sought to deny that this was governments ought to be doing. Still less had they questioned the existence of the mixed economy. However, the failure of this economy to expand led to serious questions about its viability. In the sixties, before Bogdanor and Skidelsky wrote The Age of Affluence in 1970, it was usual to look back at the fifties as an age of prosperity and achievement. This was certainly the verdict of the electorate in 1959 who returned a Conservative Government to power for a third term in succession, with a handsome majority. However, by the seventies it was being reflected on by the above historians as:

an age of illusion, of missed opportunities, with Macmillan as the magician whose wonderful act kept us too long distanced from reality… what has altered the verdict on the 1950s has been the experience of the troubles of the 1960s, which stem in part at least from the neglect of the earlier decade. Already by 1964 the appeal of the slogan ’Thirteen Wasted Years’ was strong enough to give Labour a tiny minority; in the years following it has been confirmed almost as the conventional wisdom… perhaps the period of Conservative rule will be looked upon as the period of quiet before the storm, rather like the Edwardian age which in many ways it resembles. In that case its tranquility will come to be valued more highly than its omissions.

 

In his book The Affluent Society (1958), J K Galbraith had intended to sketch an outline of a developed society which had in large part solved the problem of production and could therefore concentrate its energies on other things, including the more even and fairer distribution of the wealth it created. The class struggle in such a society would be obselete and so also the ideologies which propped it up. Politics would no longer be about general choices but about incremental changes. Uncritical transference of Galbraith’s thesis into the British context helped obscure the fact that Britain had not, in fact, solved its production problems. While the optimism of the early 1950s was understandable, the production boom at that time was largely built on random, temporary circumstances. From 1955, the British was bedevilled by a series of sterling crises which gradually forced the politicians to pay attention to difficult structural problems they wished to avoid. From the early seventies onwards it became possible to see that the years 1952-64 were neither a period of continuous and uninterrupted expansion as the Conservatives pretended, nor the Thirteen Wasted Years of Labour propaganda.

As the Kennedy’s Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, commented in 1962, Britain had lost its empire and now needed to find its role. Macmillan was slow to see that that role was not to be found in its special relationship with the United States, which, without the Empire, was bound to become more and more unequal, if there was ever any real equity in it, but in relation to the changes occuring within Europe. In economics, as in foreign policy, consensus reigned supreme, signifying the common political ground over the mixed economy and the Welfare State. It humanised and civilised the adversarial political system in Britain and ensured its emancipation from the ghosts of the past; unfortunately, as Bogdanor and Skidelsky pointed out, it also imposed a moratorium on the raising of new and vital issues, because it was based on traditional assumptions about Britain’s political and economic role in the world. The need to make real political, maco-economic choices was submerged under a generalised commitment to the objective of economic growth, without an effective strategy with which to bring this about. The Conservatives became convinced that…

capitalism could provide affluence for the working class while at the same time preserving the gains of the well-to-do… Consensus was the natural product of a lessening class antagonism, which in turn reflected a seeming trend towards embourgeoisement… Indeed, one of the striking characteristics of the 1950s was the absence of any major intellectual challenge to the dominant political assumptions…

 

Certainly, there was no-one of George Orwell’s stature to provide such a challenge, following his death in 1950. Writing in the year after Calvocoressi, on the cusp of the Thatcher era, Sked and Cook agreed that, on the surface, the thirteen years of Tory rule appear to have been successful ones. Great Britain still behaved as a world power internationally, while at home people experienced the affluent society and were told that they had never had it so good. They felt that they had earned the right to take things easy for a while and to take full advantage of Mr Macmillan’s hire-purchase society. In reality, as far as fiscal and economic policy was concerned, the Tories did little with their long period in power. Cushioned by the turn in the terms and balance of trade, largely the achievement of, if anyone, Stafford Cripps in the previous Labour government, they abolished rationing, reduced taxes and manipulated budgets, but they gave little impression of knowing how the economy really worked. Scant attention was paid to sluggish growth or to the long-term challenge posed by the resurgent economies of West Germany and Japan. Industrial relations were treated with an us and them managerial attitude and any thought given to the inflationary problems created by prosperity was little and late. Most of the time their energy was devoted, as in the Suez Crisis of 1956, to maintaining Britain as a world power whatever the cost to the economy. Sked and Cook concluded that:

Tory economic complacency ensured that the necessary economic growth would never be generated. Not enough money was channelled into key industries; stop-go policies undermined the confidence of industry to invest in the long-term; too much money was allowed to be exported abroad; and too much money was spent on defence… With the economic crises of the early 1960s… it began to be apparent that Tory affluence would soon come to and end…

 

It may have been the case that in 1957 a large slice of British society had indeed never had it so good. But this was hardly due to Conservative fiscal and economic policy, and may even be said to have happened in spite of it. Certainly, those policies, together with its continuing expenditure on defence and foreign policy in the face of economic and political realities, combined to ensure that, after 1963-4, the British people would never have it so good again.

The Latter Day Elizabethan Britons, 1952-2002: Introduction and Chapter One, Part One.   Leave a comment

Introduction: A New Elizabethan Age?

The closer the social historian gets to his own times, the harder it is for him to be sure he has hold of what is essential about his period: the more difficult it is to separate the rich tapestry of social life which appears on the surface of the woven fabric from its underlying patterns. This is the problem of perspective which the historian has to try to overcome in his craft.The period from 1952 to 1977 was one of rapid social change, and one in which the pace and direction of social change itself became a matter of concern in social discourse. The discussion was about whether the surface evidence of change really added up to a social revolution for ordinary people. That argument is still unresolved: more than sixty years later we are still living out its contradictory legacy. Many witnesses to the period are still alive, and each with their own differing memories, impressions and interpretations of the period.

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One of the most striking features of the period is the growth and importance of the mass media of communication. Television on a mass scale decisively intervened in English Social life, supplementing and then overtaking the already complex networks of communication – radio, newspapers, mass publishing – which are part and parcel of the advanced industrial civilization. These new media also serve to document the social life of the period for the historian. Commentaries, personal testimonies and documentary material which for perviously the historian would have to call from printed sources, dusty archives or directly from eye-witnesses, are now to be found, more comprehensively, in primary form, in radio and television archives, many of which are now available online via the internet, together with more accessible written sources. In the oral and film sources are preserved the living voices and speech patterns of ordinary people, talking about their experiences of, and responses to, the conditions of their lives. They also give us a sense of how the new means of communication fundamentally reshaped our sense of what our collective social experience is like. However, extracts from archive material are not always more useful as printed sources, nor are they more reliable. They tend to be briefer, as well as having been edited for specific purposes. They have been inserted into a programme format, dictated by the special interest of a producer. The witnesses do not have the opportunity to think their way around a topic in the way in which the diarist or letter-writer of a previous period did. There is also an over-abundance of material related to official public events. Yet it is in these voices that we can best grasp the impact of historical forces on the lives of ordinary men and women.

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The Windsor Family Tree following the death of George V

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People began to speak of a new Elizabethan age following the death of George VI and the accession of his daughter in 1952, leading to the great national event of the coronation in the summer of 1953. Many bought their first television sets in order to watch the event live, while the Establishment took up their usual positions at Westminster Abbey. Sir Henry Chips Channon occupied almost the same seat as the one he had at the previous Coronation. He wrote the following account in his diary:

…Finally came the magic of the Queen’s arrival: she was calm and confident and even charming, and looked touching and quite perfect, while Prince Philip was like a medieval knight – the Service, Anointing, Crowning, Communion were endless, yet the scene was so splendid, so breath-taking in the solemn splendour that it passed in a flash. The homage was impressive… The Great Officers of State swished their robes with dignity… Privy Councillors in their uniforms, men in levee dress, the little Queen at one moment simply dressed in a sort of shift, and then later resplendent: the pretty pages; the supreme movements… the nodding, chatting, gossiping Duchesses; the swan-like movements when they simultaneously placed their coronets on their heads… it was all finer, and better organised than the last time, although the Archbishop’s voice was not as sonorous as that of the wicked old Lang.. What a day for England, and the traditional forces of the world. Shall we ever see the like again? I have been present at two Coronations and now shall never see another. Will my Paul be an old man at that of King Charles III?

 

Two other events caught the popular imagination of Britain in 1953/54. They were both firsts for the British Empire. The news of the first successful Ascent of Everest by the New Zealander, Sir Edmund Hillary and the Nepalese Sherpa, Tenzing Norgay, came through on the day of the Coronation. The following spring, the country was thrilled again by Roger Bannister’s stunning running of the first four-minute mile at the Iffley Road Athletics Stadium in Oxford, on 6 May 1954. Dr. Bannister’s own account of the race, written two years later, reads as follows:

There was complete silence on the ground… a false start… The gun fired a second time… Brasher went into the lead and I slipped in effortlessly behind him, feeling tremendously full of running. My legs seemed to meet no resistance at all, as if propelled by some unknown force. We seemed to be going slowly! Impatiently, I shouted ’Faster!’ But Brasher kept his head and did not change the pace. I went on worrying until I heard the first lap time, 57.5 secs …he had made success possible… I barely noticed the half-mile, passed in 1 min. 58 secs, nor when, round the next bend, Chataway went into the lead. At three-quarters of a mile the effort was still barely perceptible; the time was 3 min. 0.7 sec., and by now the crowd were roaring. Somehow I had to run that last lap in 59 seconds. Chataway led round the next bend and then I pounced past him at the beginning of the back straight, three hundred yards from the finish. I had a moment of mixed joy and anguish, when my mind took over. It… drew my body compellingly forward. I felt that the moment of a lifetime had come. There was no pain, only a great unity of movement and aim… The only reality was the next two hundred yards of track under my feet. The tape meant finality – extinction perhaps.

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I felt at that moment that it was my chance to do one thing supremely well. I drove on, impelled by a combination of fear and pride… The noise in my ears was that of the faithful Oxford crowd. Their hope and encouragement gave me greater strength. I had now turned the last bend and there was only fifty yards more… The faint line of the finishing tape stood ahead as a haven of peace, after the struggle. The arms of the world were waiting to receive me if only I reached the tape without slackening my speed… I leapt at the tape like a man taking his last spring to save himself from the chasm that threatens to engulf him. My effort was over and I collapsed almost unconscious, with an arm on either side of me. It was only then that the pain overtook me… I was too close to have failed… The stopwatches held the answer. The announcement came – ’result of one mile… 3 minutes…’ the rest lost in the roar of excitement…

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The stop-watches were stopped at 3 minutes 59.4 seconds. As Bannister, Brasher, and Chataway took their lap of honour, they knew that they would share a permanent place in sporting history. They were the first athletes to record a mile in under four minutes. Since then the record has been broken several times, but under much better conditions underfoot and in the air. In those conditions, Bannister could not have achieved the time without his fellow-athletes. There was no huge stadium clock to glance up at, only the lap times shouted by the officials from the trackside. It was therefore crucial to get the pace-setting exactly right. In any event, no matter how many seconds are shaved off the four minutes by men, and perhaps women, in the future, Bannister’s run will always remain, as his the title of his 1955 memoir states, The First Four Minutes. And, of course, the cameras were present to record the event on film.

 

Chapter One: Never had it so Good?

Following their victory over Labour in the 1951 General Election, it took the Conservatives longer to remove rationing than they had hoped. The new Tory government continued the consensus policies of the Labour governments and built on their achievements. There was continuing substantial economic growth, with industrial production rising by a third in the decade after 1951. By sacrificing a certain degree of quality, the government was able to build three hundred thousand new houses a year. They also had new towns built, though market forces were allowed to override the regional policy of the previous government, with its emphasis on special development areas. Most of the country’s electrical power was produced by coal-fired stations, but the atomic bomb had been successfully tested in 1952, leading to the setting up of a reactor at Windscale (later renamed Sellafield) to produce the necessary plutonium. Despite a major fire there in 1957, producing widespread contamination, a series of Magnox power stations was built throughout the country. A lonely stretch of coast near Leiston in Suffolk became the site of Britain’s second nuclear power station, built in the early 1960s. In 1966 power began surging out from the grey, cuboid plant into the national grid. By the mid-seventies Sizewell’s five hundred and eighty thousand kilowatts were going a long way towards meeting the electricity needs of eastern England.

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Sizewell Nuclear Power Station (2014)

The period from 1952 to 1977 bridges the two worlds of wartime Britain and Britain in Europe, Britain under inflation. The mid to late fifties was the period of affluence. Slowly at first, and then with gathering speed, Britain entered a period of rapid change and growing prosperity, when a great deal of money flowed into the purchase of the newly available consumer goods. Prosperity is underpinned by the continuing revolution in Welfare and by full employment. The rebuilding and reconstruction of the urban and suburban environment, made necessary by the large-scale bombing and the massive social neglect of the interwar period, was in full sway. New kinds of industry, based largely on the revolution in electronic, came into being alongside the old, without displacing them. There was a shift in the patterns of skills, and of work, and in the composition of the labour force, with more workers involved in clerical, highly skilled or service occupations. At the same time, more workers were pushed down into the unskilled ranks of mass production. They became more mobile again, pulled to where the jobs were. The pattern of regional decline in the older industrial areas and of rapid, unorganised growth in the new areas began to re-emerge. In some areas and industries, the long-term pattern of continuity from one generation to the next persisted, while in other, newer areas, this continuity was broken. New housing schemes, including estates and high-rise blocks of flats, plus the new town experiments, undermined the traditional urban working-class environments, robbing them of their intrinsic collective identities. The extended kinship network of the traditional prewar working-class neighbourhoods and communities was replaced by the nuclear family life on the new estates. Rehousing, property speculation, the rise of the consumer society, market forces, urban planning and legislation, all play their role in a further regeneration of working-class culture. In 1972, Phil Cohen, a University of Birmingham sociologist, described these processes in a Working Paper:

The first effect of the high density, high-rise schemes was to destroy the function of the street, the local pub, the corner shop… Instead there was only the privatised space of the family unit, stacked one on top of another, in total isolation, juxtaposed with the totally public space which surrounded it, and which lacked any of the informal social controls generated by the neighbourhood. The streets which serviced the new estates became thoroughfares, their users ’pedestrians’, and by analogy so many bits of human traffic… The people who had to live in them weren’t fooled. As one put it – they might have hot running water and central heating, but to him they were still prisons in the sky… The isolated family unit could no longer call on the resources of wider kinship networks, or the neighbourhood, and the family itself became the sole focus of solidarity… The working class family was… not only isolated from the outside but undermined from within. There is no better example of what we are talking about than the so-called ’household mother’. The street or turning was no longer available as a safe play space, under neighbourly supervision. Mum, or Auntie, was no longer just round the corner to look after the kids for the odd morning. Instead, the task of keeping an eye on the kids fell exclusively to the young wife, and the only safe play space was the ’safety of the home’.

 

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However, away from the high-rise blocks, the stubborn continuities of working-class life and culture survived. Nevertheless, the theme of community became a matter of widespread and fundamental concern in the period. The question emerged as to whether, as the conditions and patterns of social life for working people changed, and as what surplus money there was about began to pour into the new consumer goods on offer, people might not only be uprooted from a life they knew, and had made themselves, to another made partly for them by others. This might also involve a shift from the working-class values of solidarity, neighbourliness and collectivism, to those of individualism, competition and privatisation. The BBC archive material from the period record how television played a role in this transition to more middle class attitudes:

Nowadays, there’s a tremendous change, an amazing change, in fact, in just a few years. People have got television. They stay at home to watch it – husbands and wives. If they do come in at the weekend they’re playing bingo. They’ve now got a big queue for the one-armed bandit as well. They do have a lot more money, but what they’re losing is togetherness.

 

The real spread of television happened only in the early years of the fifties. Commercial TV opened in 1955. By monopolising the channels of public discussion, television also centralised the power to make its images of social life stick. It communicated, at rapid speed, highly selective, if not distorted, images of one community or section of society to another. It also helped to form an overall image of where the whole of society was headed. It gave an almost tangible visibility to the quite limited rise in consumption and in spending money, signifying the world in terms of the goodies produced in the new consumer industries and seeking markets among the working class. It created the spectacular world of commodities. It is difficult to assess how far this advertising imagery of consumption entered the lives of ordinary men and women. It seems, in retrospect, to have been wildly exaggerated. The telly in the corner made a difference – but it did not suddenly dismantle the culture of working people. Alan Sillitoe, in his The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (1959), gave this assessment of its impact:

Night after night we sat in front of the telly with a ham sandwich in one hand, and a bar of chocolate in the other, and a bottle of lemonade between our boots., while mam was with some fancy-man upstairs on the new bed she’d ordered… To begin with, the adverts on the telly had shown us how much more there was in the world to buy than we’d ever dreamed of when we’d looked into the shop windows but hadn’t seen all there was to see because we didn’t have the money to buy it with anyway. And the telly made all these things twenty times better than we’d ever thought they were. Even adverts at the cinema were cool and tame, because now we were seeing them in private at home. We used to cock our noses up at things in the shop that didn’t move, but suddenly we saw their real value because they jumped and glittered around the screen and had some pasty-faced tart going head over heels to get her nail-polished grabbers on them or her lipstick lips over them, not like the crumbly adverts you saw on posters or in newspapers as dead as doornails; these were flickering around loose, half-opened packets and tins, making you think that all you had to do was finish opening them before they were yours, like seeing an unlocked safe through a shop window with the man gone away for a cup of tea without thinking to guard his lolly… mam used to call us the Telly boys…

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If the British working class was entering a sort of affluence, it was also, at the same time, trying to comprehend what affluence was about. It was easy and tempting to mistake the highly visible indices of change for the real movement below the surface. It was a temptation that many at the time fell into, and one that many historians have done since. The myths of affluence became inextricably interwoven with the contradictory experience of affluence. No wonder that one commentator, writing about Britain in the late fifties, called it Britain – Unknown Country. In one section of the population, change did register in a peculiarly strong and visible way: among the young. The 1950s saw the rise to prominence, for the first time, of a distinct and identifiable culture of the young – something different from the culture of the private public schools that George Orwell had known, or the high spirits of Oxbridge students. For ordinary young people, the war – which they had experienced as young children, really did divide history into before and after; and they belonged to after.

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This break in the heroic narrative of Britain gave a strong generational marking to the relationships between adults and youth. If incomes had gone up a little for many working people, they had improved at a faster rate for young adults; and since their families had a little more economic security than between the wars, a higher proportion of what they earned was left over for spending on themselves and their own recreations and pursuits. Affluent Britain was not a society which allowed spare cash to accumulate in anyone’s pockets for long. The surplus in the pockets of young working-class boys and girls was quickly funneled into the new industries servicing working-class leisure, and out of this emerged distinctive youth styles which so marked the fifties that youth itself became the metaphor for social change. Violence also began to increase in British society, not only in terms of crime, but also in riots by teenage Teddy Boys in the late 1950s. Bringing together youth, new dance music, extravagant dress and a reputation for insolence and violence that shocked a nation still largely wedded to prewar and wartime vales, they were the first modern youth culture. A teenager interviewed by the BBC described their dress in great detail:

Short jackets, two little vents at the back, three buttons, single-breasted, maybe blazer stripes, wearing blazer, Italian rounded collar shirts, usually navy blue, white or red, trousers with no turn ups, usually 16 inch, 17 inch bottoms, pointed toe shoes, you know. That’s about all. Oh, and they wear big overcoats, with pointed collars or macs, white macs, you know. It’s all derived from the French and Italians.

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T.R. Fyvel, in The Insecure Offenders (1961), wrote that there was a sexual twist in the make-up of Teddy Boys which could be ascribed to their excessive interest in their own and each other’s clothes and hair-styles, such as the habit of the early Teddy boys having their hair permanently waved. The stock answer of Teddy boy dandies to inquiring journalists about this was: If the girls do it and make themselves look nice, why shouldn’t we? An Irish informant was sure that this revealed a basic effeminacy and nothing else. He felt that the main motive for their dress was jealousy of the girls for being the centre of attention. Listening to these Teds as they stood around talking to each other in the dance-halls, all he could hear about was clothes and style:

They could talk literally for hours about styles and cut and prices, the way you usually only hear women talk. But even if they weren’t all effeminate,… the main thing with these Teds was that they had to outshine the way the girls dressed… The Teddy boy was always the person who had to stand out.

Two processes were at work here. The new youth styles, expressing themselves in terms of consumption patterns, also indicated subtle shifts in attitude and outlook: but no-one changed their life-situation, life chances or social position by becoming a Teddy Boy or a Mod. The other process, the route out of the working class into the professional ranks through education – the Eleven Plus, the Grammar School, the University – may have offered a more permanent route of social mobility, but far fewer could ever take it; and the social and personal costs for first generation Scholarship Boys and Girls were punishing – the loss of roots, of a sense of connection to their own communities, even to their own families. In Michael Young and Peter Wimott’s famous 1957 report on Family and Kinship in East London, one of the informants was the first girl at an East End elementary school to pass the scholarship examination for grammar school. Coming home on the day the results came out, she tried to tell her mother as casually as she could that she had passed, but soon broke down. Soon afterwards a messenger arrived from the headmistress to summon her mother to the school to receive her congratulations and those of her staff. Her school was given a half-day holiday in celebration. However, the rejoicing of the teachers was not generally shared within her working-class community. It was a breach of custom for little women to go to secondary schools to prepare for paper work in offices, and, if they did, they were made to feel their peculiarity. They lost their classmates as friends and they were isolated in their street; there was probably no-one else going to the grammar school. They became sort of reserved and regarded as someone apart. The uniform, supposed to be a mark of superior status, became the target of inverted snobbery. The gym tunic, panama hat, gloves and long black woollen stockings which had to be worn all year round until they reached the upper form, made the scholarship girls figures of ridicule among their peers who all attended an ordinary school. She commented:

I was more or less ostracised by the other girls in the street… They would shout out something about being stuck up or a ’swank-pot’. It was not just that they made fun of us, we just didn’t have much in common. They had different ideas…

 

Their non-conformity was very apparent when they reached fourteen, the minimum leaving age. All the other girls in the street left elementary school and went to work at a proper manual job. She remembered passing two girls who had just started work on the way to the bus stop. They wouldn’t speak to her any more and she felt they were probably thinking, the lazy little so and so. Adults were no more sympathetic, though less vocal, than their children: This was a working-class community, and those who tried to become something else were not behaving as they should.

Out of this first generation of working-class boys to complete their education, the late 1950s also saw the Angry Young Man syndrome emerge. The literary and dramatic prototype for this was Jimmy Porter, in John Osborne’s play, Look Back in Anger (1956). In the play, Jimmy had observed:

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

While many insisted that the new permissive society was essentially civilised and liberating, prophets of doom believed that Britain had progressed from austerity to affluence and, finally, to decadence. Complaints were made about materialistic values, striptease clubs, drink, gambling and the alarming increase in juvenile delinquency, prostitution and illegitimacy. The Profumo and Vassall affairs, although talking place in echelons of society which were high above the man in the street, and a generation removed from the Scholarship Boys, were nevertheless held up as examples of a decline in sexual morality. The Profumo episode, erupting into the House of Commons in March 1963, was a fitting post-script to the era of affluence. It was, as Wayland Young wrote at the time, scandal and crisis together. It exercised some of the purgative and disruptive functions of a revolution. Certainly, concern was also registered about the waning influence of established religion, or even nonconformist religion.

Typical of the critical comments on youth culture were those of BBC Radio’s Any Questions team, when asked to comment on the events surrounding Bill Haley’s Rock Around the Clock. Mary Stocks remarked that young people were merely exhibiting a sort of unexpended animal spirits, while Lord Boothby expressed the view that he’d rather they went off to Cairo and started Teddy-boying around there. Jeremy Thorpe said that Jazz to me comes from the jungle and this is jungle music taken to its logical conclusion… musical Mau-Mau. But was the Britain of this period a decadent society in any meaningful sense? Young people were certainly more sceptical about traditional values, but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that they cared about cultural values. After all, there was also a more serious side to the cultural revolution of the late fifties and early sixties. Nevertheless, the angry young men and women who found a cause in joining the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) also came under verbal attack. When the 1958 Aldermaston march began, and the first ragged ranks swung into view on the first day, one observer commented:

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

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They did find some support from among the prewar generation, especially from those who remembered being young when the Peace Pledge Union was formed with high, if somewhat impracticable ideals, in the mid-thirties. Radio commentator and writer René Cutforth lent his cryptic support to the new generation of peace campaigners by suggesting that they might just be the only people left alive. Certainly, the shadow of what Jimmy Porter called the big bang lengthened across the whole face of affluent Britain throughout the whole decade, and into the sixties, when the anti-Vietnam war movement developed alongside CND. However, CND received a set-back when the next Labour leader, Harold Wilson, originally a Bevanite advocate of unilateral disarmament, made a pragmatic switch to a determined opponent of it. Regardless of the eventual outcomes of these movements, the extra-parliamentary politics which they introduced changed the nature of post-war politics over the next decade, crystallising the popular mood of protest and dissent against the enforced calm of prosperous Britain. 

 Below: Aneurin Bevan, Labour’s Health and Local Government Minister011021

Above: Winston Churchill won the 1951 General Election was returned to office as PM of a Conservative peace-time government for the first time

In the view of many hindsighted historians, the period of Conservative governments from 1951 to 1964 was of one of illusion, of an Indian summer, an Edwardian era which preceding a period of crisis and conflict. The Conservatives had come to power in the 1951 General Election largely because the electorate had become disillusioned with Labour. Prolonged Austerity was remembered more clearly than the benefits of the Welfare State. Churchill had been returned to power promising a bonfire of controls. The removal of the symbols of austerity, especially rationing, the housing programme masterminded by Harold Macmillan and the boom of the early fifties all presaged well for the Conservatives. They were aided in this by the internecine struggles within the Labour Party between Gaitskill and Bevan over the succession to Attlee, beginning Thirteen Wasted Years for it. When Gaitskill became leader, he made it clear that he was opposed to further nationalisation, putting a hold on any return to the socialist idealism of 1945-8.

Austerity with its characteristic lack of consumer products was replaced by affluence with the plethora of those same products which came to characterise the country as a consumer society. But Conservative policy also led to inflation based on the continuous demand that this generated, and government failed to intervene to deal adequately with the growing problems in the economy. In 1955, when, as a result of a Government-assisted boom in industrial development, demand began to run ahead of capacity and the economy became overstrained, R. A. Butler deliberately pushed up the cost of living by raising purchase tax on a wide range of goods, and at the same time a number of measures were taken to discourage capital investment. The policy eventually succeeded in slowing down the pace of wage increases, which was one of the factors behind the 1955 inflation. But it took nearly three years to do so, at the cost of a virtually complete industrial standstill and a number of financial crises and major industrial disputes.

One particularly unfortunate aspect of this period was the Government’s attempts to restrict investment in the public sector, an attempt which was largely unsuccessful because of the long-term nature of most of the projects involved, which made it quite impossible to turn them on and off like a tap to meet the short-term fluctuations in the economy. One economist, writing in 1961, commented that it was too early to assess the long-term damage to the British economy from this period of enforced standstill, but that it certainly left us with a lot of leeway to catch up. He also pointed out that it was not until the recession of 1958 that this policy was reversed by the Treasury. Some historians have argued that the consensus politics of the post-war era, followed by both major political parties, meant that new perspectives for examining old economic problems could not be forthcoming. The illusion of continued affluence, as well as the idea of maintaining a world role, were the results of this. But others have argued that while politics may have remained the same, society did not. New beliefs, values, and attitudes began to show themselves. In this way the idea of consensus eventually came into question and the illusion of affluence was also made transparent. However, for the time being, these social changes continued to work in favour of the Tory ascendancy, as people believed that, under their rule, every day, in every way, things were getting better and better. In a speech made in Bedford on 20 July 1957, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan caught, encapsulated and articulated this optimistic mood:

Indeed, let us be frank about it: most of our people have never had it so good. Go around the country, go to the industrial areas, go to the farms, and you will see a state of prosperity such as we have never had in my lifetime – nor indeed ever in the history of this country.

When he went to that country in 1959, it was behind the slogan You’ve had it good. Have it better. Vote Conservative! When the Economist took stock of the situation for the Tories in May of that year, what it glimpsed, much to its pleasure, was The Unproletarian Society:

The old-fashioned Conservative is one who looks out at the comforts made achievable by rising incomes and the hire-purchase revolution and who feels vaguely that the workers are unfairly luckier than he was as a boy – that they are getting above their station. The modern Conservative should be one who looks up at the television aerials sprouting above the working-class homes of England, who looks down at the housewives tight slacks on the back of the motor-cycle and family side-car on the summer road to Brighton, and who sees a great poetry in them. For this is what the de-proletarianisation of British Society means; and the changes in social and industrial attitudes of mind it could bring with it are immense.

It was not only Conservatives who took this view. In 1956 Anthony Crosland, in his influential book, The Future of Socialism, recognised much the same trend towards the threshold of the new era of abundance:

 

…even these poorer workers are themselves peering over the threshold; they have accepted the new standards as the social norm, and are already thinking of the day when they too will acquire these goods. All this must have a profound effect on the psychology of the working class.

When the leader of the Labour Party, Hugh Gaitskell, faced the 1959 Conference at Blackpool after the third successive defeat of the traditional party of the working class at the polls, the second under his leadership, he certainly believed that these psychological changes were indeed part of a deep and permanent secular trend:

In short, the changing character of labour, full employment, new housing, the new way of life based on the telly, the fridge, the car and the glossy magazines – all have had their effect on our political strength.

 

Perhaps Gaitskill really did believe that the strong cultural under-currents in British society were pulling the Labour boat out to sea, and that there was little he could do about it, or perhaps he was just a captain looking for the first available port amid a storm of criticism from a potentially mutinous crew. In retrospect, given the deliberate slowing down of the boom of the mid-fifties, the general economic condition of Britain the following year and the forecasts being made for its development, it is difficult to understand how Macmillan could have justified his talk of affluence had Gaitskill sought to expose the illusion. Yet, it seemed, consensus politics even extended to the pretence that the affluent boom could not have been higher. However, the bubble burst soon after the election. When the myths of deproletarianisation and the new era of abundance were exploded with it, the reality was that it was still, fundamentally, the same Britain which had existed a decade before when Orwell was still writing. All that had happened was an era of Newspeak. The proles and the poor were not only still within British society, but the latter were increasing in numbers again: poverty was out there, simply waiting to be rediscovered, as soon became apparent once again. The economic miracle turned out to be no more than a conjuring trick that had everybody fooled for most of the time. The Tories had not only failed to solve the problem of production, but they had also managed to side step what was supposed to be an era of redistribution of wealth.

By the end of the fifties, the American dawn of the Macmillenium had failed to break over Britain. Affluent Britain, successor to Austerity Britain, had proved to be no more than a mood change, not a sea change, as politicians had pretended. The country had risen to a sharp curve of feeling, only to stutter to a halt. There had been signs enough to read. They were, by now, many young, secular new nonconformists who were challenging Macmillan’s establishment mantra, repeated in his January 1961 interview with the Daily Mail, that… We’ve got it good. Let’s keep it good. There is nothing to be ashamed of in that. But had there ever been any substance to Macmillan’s claim, even in places like Bedford? To examine whether there is any local, social and micro-economic evidence for it, I will take up his suggestion by first heading up-country to the industrial areas of the Midlands, before turning east to visit the farms of Suffolk.

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Certainly, by 1950 Coventry had made so rapid recovery from wartime damage and so smooth a transition to peacetime production of motor cars, that in that year The Financial Times reported that at least half a dozen government ministries were now trying to limit such expansion. The city’s economy was poised for yet another expansionary spurt, which manifested itself in rapid population growth, continuing to add an average of three and a half thousand every year. As in the period of mass immigration from 1926-41, this was essentially a young population, many of whom had come from Wales, Ireland, Scotland and the North of England (now including the North-East), to join relatives and friends already settled in Coventry. The predominant group among the newer migrants were prime aged males in 1951, so that by 1961 there were 21,600 males aged twenty-five to thirty-four in Coventry, representing an increase of fifty per cent, compared with the average figure for England and Wales of only three per cent. However, even this increase was not enough to satisfy the thirst for labour and this in itself helps to explain much of the increase in the occupied population of Coventry between 1951 and 1971.

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During the early 1950s most British quality cars bore the Coventry seal of Armstrong Siddeley, Alvis, Daimler, Jaguar and Rootes (the latter through its control of Humber). Their combined output was comparatively small, totalling no more than twenty-five thousand vehicles a year, no more than a quarter of the city’s total output. Of this share, Rootes produced over half. By 1960 Armstrong-Siddeley had left the market and Daimler was taken over by Jaguar, which was itself taken over by BMC in 1966. Jaguar’s production tripled over the 1950s and through the purchase of Daimler the company not only gained additional car-producing capacity, but was also enabled to diversify into the profitable bus division. Among the mass-producers, Rootes and Standard remained relatively small compared with Ford and Austin Morris, suffering because of their inability to make the economies of scale which were necessary to compete effectively in this market. Again, in 1959, the Times predicted that such small firms and plant would be unable were bound to suffer more in the event of a serious recession in the motor industry. Both Rootes and Standard were well aware of this problem, spending much of the fifties negotiating with each other, as well as with other firms, for mergers or takeovers. Having itself taken over Singer in 1956, Rootes was then gradually taken over itself by Chrysler in the next decade, while Standard merged with Leyland.

Until the mid-fifties, Coventry’s industrial over-specialisation went relatively unnoticed, except by a few economists writing in The Times and The Financial Times. The motor industry continued to expand and the city continued to act as a magnet to labour from other parts of the UK. In search of secure work and high wages in the city’s burgeoning industries. It was only when the aircraft industry began to contract that a growing awareness began to develop of the narrowness of the industrial base with its increasing over-reliance on the fortunes of the motor industry. This in turn was compounded by the fact that within the British motor industry as a whole Coventry was steadily becoming of less importance as a source of output and coupled with relatively low profits and investment levels, the economy’s stock was slowly ossifying and becoming increasingly inflexible. In the late fifties, the economy still appeared, on the surface, to be as prosperous as Macmillan’s remark suggested. It is easy, with the benefit of hindsight, to regard it as complacent. The incentives to embark on a vast restructuring of industry, whether national or local, were simply not there, especially since the policy of successive governments was to divert industry away from the new industry areas of the interwar period in favour of Britain’s depressed areas, or development areas, as they had been redesignated in the immediate postwar period.

Yet other car towns, notably Birmingham, Cowley, Dagenham and Luton were subjected to similar pressures but retained the bulk of their manufacturing capacity by the end of the seventies. The problem peculiar to Coventry was not only that the local economy became overdependent on the motor industry but that virtually all the automotive firms were, by the 1960s, ill-suited because of their size to survive the increasing competitiveness of the international market. It is no accident that most of what remained of the British motor industry was centred in towns which were dominated by one single large manufacturing plant. A major reason for Coventry’s long boom was the multiplicity of firms in the motor industry, but in the seventies this became the major cause of its decline. The only viable motor car establishment to survive this deep recession was Jaguar.

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From the industrial Midlands, I next pay a visit to old Macmillan’s farms, or rather to one of the more agricultural areas of England. By the mid-fifties, the people of East Anglia were not yet having it as good as many parts of the Home Counties that Macmillan probably had in mind when he made his famous remark. Then, from the opening of the first stretches of motorway in the winter of 1958/9, including the M1, there was a major improvement in the road network. By 1967 motorways totalled 525 miles in length, at a cost of considerable damage to the environment. Bridges were built over the Forth and Severn between 1964 and 1966. The development of new industries and the growth of the east coast ports necessitated a considerable programme of trunk road improvement. This continued into the mid-seventies at a time when economic stringency was forcing the curtailment of other road building schemes. East Anglia’s new roads were being given priority treatment for the first time. Most of the A12, the London-Ipswich road, was made into dual carriageway. The A45, the artery linking Ipswich and Felixstowe with the Midlands and the major motorways, had been considerably improved. Stowmarket, Bury St Edmunds and Newmarket had been bypassed. By the end of the decade, the A11/M11 London-Norwich road was completed, bringing to an end the isolation of northern and central Suffolk.

The railways were also made more efficient with the closure of almost six thousand miles of track and two thousand stations after the Beeching report of 1963. Thereafter, they concentrated on fast intercity services and bulk-freight transportation. The docks also began to be modernised, with ports like Tilbury and Felixstowe hastening the decline of London, which could not handle containerised freight. In 1955 the Felixstowe Dock and Railway Company had had on its hands a dilapidated dock that needed dredging, and warehouses, quays and sea walls all showing signs of storm damage. The total labour force was nine men. By the mid-seventies the dock area covered hundreds of acres, many reclaimed, made up of spacious wharves, warehouses and storage areas equipped with the latest cargo handling machinery. The transformation began in 1956 as the direct result of foresight and careful planning. The Company launched a three million pound project to create a new deep water berth geared to the latest bulk transportation technique – containerisation. It calculated that changing trading patterns and Felixstowe’s proximity to Rotterdam and Antwerp provided exciting prospects for an efficient, well-equipped port. Having accomplished that, it set aside another eight million for an oil jetty and bulk liquid storage facilities. In addition, a passenger terminal was opened in 1975. The dock soon acquired a reputation for fast, efficient handling of all types of cargo, and consignments could easily reach the major industrial centres by faster road and rail networks.

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There were many reasons for this unprecedented growth. which brought Suffolk a prosperity unknown since the expansion of the cloth trade from the mid-fourteenth century. As back then, Suffolk’s depression gave a boost to new development. Most of the county was within eighty miles of London and served by improving road and rail connections. Ports like Felixstowe were no further from the capital than those of Kent and they were a great deal closer to the industrial Midlands and the North. Some of Suffolk’s most beautiful countryside was no further from the metropolis than the stockbroker belt of the Home Counties, and yet land and property prices in Suffolk were less than half of what they were there. People were becoming more mobile and light industries were less tied to traditional centres. Companies escaping from high overheads found that they could find both the facilities and labour they needed in Ipswich, Bury, Sudbury and Haverhill. Executives also discovered that they could live in areas of great natural beauty and yet be within commuting distance of their City desks. Moreover, the shift in international trade focused attention once more on the east coast ports. As the Empire was being disbanded and Britain was drawn increasingly towards trade with the European Common Market, producers were looking for the shortest routes to the continent. More and more lorries took to the roads through Suffolk.

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