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

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Above: Denis Healey in combatant mood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Falklands ‘Escapade’:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Simon Weston in 2008

The Falklands Factor and the 1983 Election:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Political and Cultural Landscape of Wales:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Revolution or retro-capitalism?

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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