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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 Obstructionist trade unions were a favourite target for many in the early seventies, but incompetent and outdated management was also a factor.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.

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