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‘Celebrity’ Britain: The Arrival of ‘New Labour’ & Diana’s Demise, 1994-99.   Leave a comment

The Advent of Brown & Blair:

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Tony Blair was far more of an establishment figure than his mentor John Smith, or his great political ‘friend’ and future rival, Gordon Brown. He was the son of a Tory lawyer and went to preparatory school in Durham and then to a fee-paying boarding school in Edinburgh. He then went ‘up’ to Oxford, becoming a barrister and joining the Labour Party before he fell in love with a young Liverpudlian socialist called Cherie Booth, who sharpened his left-wing credentials before he became an MP at the 1983 General Election, winning a safe Labour seat in the north-east of England. Once in the Commons, he quickly fell in with Gordon Brown, another new MP, who was much that Blair was not. He was a tribal Labour Party man from a family which was strongly political and had rarely glimpsed the English Establishment, even its middle ranks from which Blair sprung. Brown had been Scotland’s best-known student politician and player in Scottish Labour politics from the age of twenty-three, followed by a stint in television. Yet the two men had their Christian beliefs in common, Anglo-Catholic in Blair’s case and Presbyterian in Brown’s. Most importantly, they were both deeply impatient with the state of the Labour Party. For seven or eight years they had seemed inseparable, sharing a small office together. Brown tutored Blair in some of the darker arts of politics while Blair explained the thinking of the English metropolitan and suburban middle classes to Brown. Together they made friends with Westminster journalists, both maturing as performers in the Commons, and together they worked their way up the ranks of the shadow cabinet.

After the 1992 defeat, Blair made a bleak public judgement about why Labour had lost so badly. The reason was simple: Labour has not been trusted to fulfil the aspirations of the majority of people in a modern world. As shadow home secretary he began to put that right, promising to be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime. He was determined to return his party to the common-sense values of Christian Socialism, also influenced by the mixture of socially conservative and economically liberal messages used by Bill Clinton and his ‘New Democrats’. So too was Gordon Brown but as shadow chancellor, his job was to demolish the cherished spending plans of his colleagues. Also, his support for the ERM made him ineffective when Major and Lamont suffered their great defeat. By 1994, the Brown-Blair relationship was less strong than it had been, but they visited the States together to learn the new political style of the Democrats which, to the advantage of Blair, relied heavily on charismatic leadership. Back home, Blair pushed Smith to reform the party rulebook, falling out badly with him in the process. Media commentators began to tip Blair as the next leader, and slowly but surely, the Brown-Blair relationship was turning into a Blair-Brown one.

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In the days following the sudden death of the Labour leader, John Smith (pictured right), Tony Blair decided almost immediately to run as his replacement, while Gordon Brown hesitated, perhaps more grief-stricken. But he had assumed he would eventually inherit the leadership, and was aghast when he heard of Blair’s early declaration. There were at least ten face-to-face confrontations between the two men, in London and Edinburgh. In the opinion polls, Blair was shown to be more popular, and he had the backing of more MPs as well as that of the press. Crucial to Blair’s case was his use of received pronunciation which, after Neil Kinnock and John Smith’s heavily accented English, would reassure those more prejudiced parts of the Kingdom which were the main battlegrounds for Labour, and in which Celtic tones were not perhaps as appreciated as they might be nowadays. They were alright when heard from actors and BBC presenters, but they made politicians seem more ‘peripheral’. Brown had a deeper knowledge of the Labour movement and broader support among the trade unions, however, and had also thought through his policy agenda for change in greater detail. Given the vagaries of Labour’s electoral college system, it is impossible to judge, even now, what might have happened had the ‘young English hart’ locked horns with the ‘tough Scottish stag’, but they agreed at the time that it would be disastrous for them to fight each other as two ‘modernisers’ since Brown would have to attack Blair from the left and the unions would then demand their tribute from him if he won.

So the two men came to a deal, culminating in a dinner at a ‘chic’ Islington restaurant. The outcome is still a matter of some dispute, but we know that Blair acknowledged that Brown, as Chancellor in a Labour government, would have complete authority over a wide range of policy which he would direct through the Treasury, including the ‘social justice’ agenda. But it is unlikely that he would have been so arrogant as to agree, as some have suggested, that he would hand over the premiership to Brown after seven years. After all, at that time Labour was already still three years away from winning its first term and not even the sharpest crystal ball could have projected the second term at that juncture. The most significant result of their dinner-table deal was that, following all the battles between Tory premiers and chancellors of the then recent and current Conservative governments, Brown’s Treasury would become a bastion for British home affairs, while Blair was left to concentrate on foreign policy largely unimpeded, with all the tragic consequences with which we are now familiar, with the benefit of the hindsight of the last twenty years.

Team Tony & ‘Blair’s Babes’:

When it arrived, the 1997 General Election demonstrated just what a stunningly efficient and effective election-winning team Tony Blair led, comprising those deadly masters of spin, Alistair Campbell and Peter Mandelson. ‘New Labour’ as it was now officially known, won 419 seats, the largest number ever for the party and comparable only with the seats won by the National Government of 1935. Its Commons majority was also a modern record, 179 seats, and thirty-three more than Attlee’s landslide majority of 1945. The swing of ten per cent from the Conservatives was another post-war record, roughly double that which the 1979 Thatcher victory had produced in the opposite direction. But the turn-out was very low, at seventy-one per cent the lowest since 1935. Labour had won a famous victory but nothing like as many actual votes as John Major had won five years earlier. But Blair’s party also won heavily across the south and in London, in parts of Britain where it had previously been unable to reach or represent in recent times.

As the sun came up on a jubilant, celebrating Labour Party returning to power after an eighteen-year absence, there was a great deal of Bohemian rhapsodizing about a new dawn for Britain. Alistair Campbell had assembled crowds of party workers and supporters to stand along Downing Street waving union flags as the Blairs strode up to claim their victory spoils. Briefly, at least, it appeared that the whole country had turned out to cheer the champions. In deepest, Lib-Con ‘marginal’ Somerset, many of us had been up all night, secretly sipping our Cava in front of the incredible scenes unfolding before our disbelieving eyes, and when the results came in from Basildon and Birmingham Edgbaston (my first constituency at the age of eighteen when it had already been a safe seat for Tory matron Jill Knight for at least a decade), we were sure that this would indeed be a landslide victory, even if we had had to vote for the Liberal Democrats in the West Country just to make sure that there was no way back for the Tories. The victory was due to a small group of self-styled modernisers who had seized the Labour Party and made it a party of the ‘left and centre-left’, at least for the time being, though by the end of the following thirteen years, and after two more elections, they had taken it further to the right than anyone expected on that balmy early summer morning; there was no room for cynicism amid all the euphoria. Labour was rejuvenated, and that was all that mattered.

A record number of women were elected to Parliament, 119, of whom 101 were Labour MPs, the so-called ‘Blair’s babes’. Despite becoming one of the first countries in the world to have a female prime minister, in 1987 there were just 6.3% of women MPs in government in the UK, compared with 10% in Germany and about a third in Norway and Sweden. Only France came below the UK with 5.7%.

Official portrait of Dame Margaret Hodge crop 2.jpgBefore the large group of women MPs joined her in 1997, Margaret Hodge (pictured below, c.1992, and right, in c. 2015) had already become MP for Barking in a 1994 by-election, following the death of Labour MP Jo Richardson. While still a new MP, Hodge endorsed the candidature of Tony Blair, a former Islington neighbour, for the Labour Party leadership, and was appointed Junior Minister for Disabled People in 1998. Before entering the Commons, she had been Leader of Islington Council and had not been short of invitations from constituencies to stand in the 1992 General Election. Given that she is now referred to as a ‘veteran MP’ it is therefore interesting to note that she had turned these offers down, citing her family commitments:

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“It’s been a hard decision; the next logical step is from local to national politics and I would love to be part of a Labour government influencing change. But it’s simply inconsistent with family life, and I have four children who mean a lot to me. 

“It does make me angry that the only way up the political ladder is to work at it twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. That’s not just inappropriate for a woman who has to look after children or relatives, it’s inappropriate for any normal person.

“The way Parliament functions doesn’t attract me very much. MPs can seem terribly self-obsessed, more interested in their latest media appearance than in creating change.” 

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Patricia Hewitt (pictured above, in 1992, and more recently, right) had first begun looking for a seat in the 1970s when she was general secretary of the National Council of Civil Liberties (NCCL). She later commented that… looking for a seat takes an enormous amount of time, and money, too if you’re travelling a lot. Eventually, she was chosen to fight Leicester East in 1983, a contest which she lost by only nine hundred votes to the Conservative in what was then a relatively safe Tory seat. She later recalled driving up to Leicester on two evenings every week:

“I was planning to have a child after the elections – looking back I don’t know I imagined I was going to cope if Labour had won the seat… Even without children, I was leading such a pressured life – and my partner was doing the same as a Labour councillor – that it did put a strain on our relationship.”

She then became Neil Kinnock’s press and broadcasting secretary. In this role, she was a key player in the first stages of the ‘modernisation’ of the Labour Party, and along with Clive Hollick, helped set up the Institute for Public Policy Research and was its deputy director 1989–1994. By the time of the 1992 General Election she had two small children, so she decided not to look for a seat. Following Labour’s defeat in 1992, Hewitt was asked by the new Labour Leader, John Smith, to help establish the Commission on Social Justice, of which she became deputy chair. She then became head of research with Andersen Consulting, remaining in the post during the period 1994–1997. Hewitt was finally elected to Parliament to the House of Commons as the first female MP for Leicester West at the 1997 General Election, following the retirement of Greville Janner. She was elected with a majority of 12,864 and remained the constituency MP until stepping down in 2010.

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Mary Kaldor (pictured right in the 1980s, and below in 2000), by contrast, never became an MP, one of the ‘loves’ Labour lost. A British academic, currently Professor of Global Governance at the London School of Economics, where she is also the Director of the Civil Society and Human Security Research Unit, she was the daughter of the economist Nicholas Kaldor, an exiled Hungarian economist who became an adviser to Harold Wilson in the 1960s. In the nineties, she was a senior research fellow at the Science Policy Research Unit of Sussex, and former foreign policy adviser to the Labour Party. She was shortlisted for Hackney and Dulwich in 1981, attending masses of meetings, many of which were boring at which she was endlessly having to be nice to people. Her youngest child was two years old at the time and was therefore ambivalent about the idea of becoming an MP:

“I was very well-equipped with baby minders and a nice understanding husband, but what on earth is the point of having children if you’re not going to see them?

“Building links with eastern Europe through the peace movement was more exciting than anything I could ever have done as an MP … (which seemed) entirely about competitiveness and being in the limelight, giving you no time to think honestly about your political views.”

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In 1999, Kaldor supported international military intervention over Kosovo on humanitarian grounds, calling for NATO ground forces to follow aerial bombardment in an article for The Guardian. I have written about the war in Kosovo in a separate article in this series. Significantly, however, by the end of the next decade Kaldor lost faith in the principle and practice of humanitarian intervention, telling the same paper:

The international community makes a terrible mess wherever it goes…

It is hard to find a single example of humanitarian intervention during the 1990s that can be unequivocally declared a success. Especially after Kosovo, the debate about whether human rights can be enforced through military means is ever more intense.

Moreover, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which have been justified in humanitarian terms, have further called into question the case for intervention.

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Blair needed the support and encouragement of admirers and friends who would coax and goad him. There was Mandelson, the brilliant but temperamental former media boss, who had now become an MP. Although adored by Blair, he was so mistrusted by other members of the team that Blair’s inner circle gave him the codename ‘Bobby’ (as in Bobby Kennedy). Alistair Campbell, Blair’s press officer and attack-dog is pictured above, in a characteristic ‘pose’. A former journalist and natural propagandist, he had helped orchestrate the campaign of mockery against Major. Then there was Anji Hunter, the contralto charmer who had known Blair as a young rock-singer and was his best hotline to middle England. Derry Irvine was a brilliant Highlands lawyer who had first found a place in his chambers for Blair and Booth. He advised on constitutional change and became Lord Chancellor in due course. These people, with the Brown team working in parallel, formed the inner core. The young David Miliband, son of a well-known Marxist philosopher, provided research support. Among the MPs who were initially close were Marjorie ‘Mo’ Mowlem and Jack Straw, but the most striking aspect about ‘Tony’s team’ was how few elected politicians it included.

The small group of people who put together the New Labour ‘project’ wanted to find a way of governing which helped the worse off, particularly by giving them better chances in education and to find jobs, while not alienating the mass of middle-class voters. They were extraordinarily worried by the press and media, bruised by what had happened to Kinnock, whom they had all worked with, and ruthlessly focused on winning over anyone who could be won. But they were ignorant of what governing would be like. They were able to take power at a golden moment when it would have been possible to fulfil all the pledges they had made. Blair had the wind at his back as the Conservatives would pose no serious threat to him for many years to come. Far from inheriting a weak or crisis-ridden economy, he was actually taking over at the best possible time when the country was recovering strongly but had not yet quite noticed that this was the case. Blair had won by being ruthless, and never forgot it, but he also seemed not to realise quite what an opportunity ‘providence’ had handed him.

Cool Britannia and the Celebrity Princess:

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Above: a page from a recent school text.

Tony Blair arrived in power in a country with a revived fashion for celebrity, offering a few politicians new opportunities but at a high cost. It was not until 1988 that the full shape of modern celebrity culture had become apparent. That year had seen the publication of the truly modern glossy glamour magazines when Hello! was launched. Its successful formula was soon copied by OK! from 1993 and many other magazines soon followed suit, to the point where the yards of coloured ‘glossies’ filled the newsagents’ shelves in every town and village in the country. Celebrities were paid handsomely for being interviewed and photographed in return for coverage which was always fawningly respectful and never hostile. The rich and famous, no matter how flawed in real life, were able to shun the mean-minded sniping of the ‘gutter press’, the tabloid newspapers. In the real world, the sunny, airbrushed world of Hello! was inevitably followed by divorces, drunken rows, accidents and ordinary scandals. But people were happy to read good news about these beautiful people even if they knew that there was more to their personalities and relationships than met the eye. In the same year that Hello! went into publication, ITV also launched its the most successful of the daytime television shows, This Morning, hosted from Liverpool by Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan, providing television’s celebrity breakthrough moment.

This celebrity fantasy world, which continued to open up in all directions throughout the nineties, served to re-emphasise to alert politicians, broadcasting executives and advertisers the considerable power of optimism. The mainstream media in the nineties was giving the British an unending stream of bleakness and disaster, so millions tuned in and turned over to celebrity. That they did so in huge numbers did not mean that they thought that celebrities had universally happy lives. And in the eighties and nineties, no celebrity gleamed more brightly than the beautiful yet troubled Princess Diana. For fifteen years she was an ever-present presence: as an aristocratic girl, whose childhood had been blighted by her parents’ divorce, her fairytale marriage in 1981 found her pledging her life to a much older man who shared few of her interests and did not even seem to be truly in love with her. Just as the monarchy had gained from its marriages, especially the filmed-for-television romance, engagement and wedding of Charles and Diana, the latter attracting a worldwide audience of at least eight hundred million, so it lost commensurately from the failure of those unions.

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Above: Hello! looks back on the 1981 Royal Wedding from that of 2011.

Diana quickly learned how to work the crowds and to seduce the cameras like Marilyn Monroe. By the end of the eighties, she had become a living fashion icon. Her eating disorder, bulimia, was one suffered by a growing number of young women and teenage girls from less privileged homes. When AIDS was in the news, she hugged its victims to show that it was safe, and she went on to campaign for a ban on the use of land-mines. The slow disintegration of this marriage transfixed Britain, as Diana moved from a china-doll debutante to painfully thin young mother, to an increasingly charismatic and confident public figure, surprising her husband who had always assumed she would be in his shadow. After the birth of their second son Harry in 1987, Charles and Diana’s marriage was visibly failing.

When rumours spread of her affairs, they no longer had the moral impact that they might have had in previous decades. By the nineties, Britain was now a divorce-prone country, in which ‘what’s best for the kids’ and ‘I deserve to be happy’ were phrases which were regularly heard in suburban kitchen-diners. Diana was not simply a pretty woman married to a king-in-waiting but someone people felt, largely erroneously, would understand them. There was an obsessive aspect to the admiration of her, something that the Royal Family had not seen before, and its leading members found it very uncomfortable and even, at times, alarming. They were being challenged as living symbols of Britain’s ‘family values’ and found wanting, just as John Major’s government would also be hoisted by its own petard as its ‘Back to Basics’ campaign was overwhelmed by an avalanche of sexual and financial scandals.

By the mid-1990s, the monarchy was looking shaky, perhaps even mortal. The strain of being at once a ceremonial and a familial institution was proving a bit much. The year 1992, referred to as the Queen as her ‘annus horribilis’ in her Christmas speech, first saw the separation of the other royal couple, Andrew and Sarah, followed by a major fire at Windsor Castle in November. The journalist Andrew Morton claimed to tell Diana’s True Story in a book which described suicide attempts, blazing rows, her bulimia and her growing certainty that Prince Charles had resumed an affair with his old love Camilla Parker-Bowles, something he later confirmed in a television interview with Jonathan Dimbleby. In December, John Major announced the separation of Charles and Diana to the House of Commons. There was a further blow to the Royal Family’s prestige in 1994 when the royal yacht Britannia, the floating emblem of the monarch’s global presence, was decommissioned.

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 Above: Prince William with his mother, c. 1994.

Then came the revelatory 1995 interview on BBC TV’s Panorama programme between Diana and Martin Bashir. Breaking every taboo left in Royal circles, she freely discussed the breakup of her marriage, claiming that there were ‘three of us’ in it, attacked the Windsors for their cruelty and promised to be ‘a queen of people’s hearts’. Finally divorced in 1996, she continued her charity work around the world and began a relationship with Dodi al-Fayed, the son of the owner of Harrods, Mohammed al-Fayed. To many in the establishment, she was a selfish, unhinged woman who was endangering the monarchy. To many millions more, however, she was more valuable than the formal monarchy, her readiness to share her pain in public making her even more fashionable. She was followed all around the world, her face and name selling many papers and magazines. By the late summer of 1997, Britain had two super-celebrities, Tony Blair and Princess Diana.

It was therefore grimly fitting that Tony Blair’s most resonant words as Prime Minister which brought him to the height of his popularity came on the morning when Diana was killed in a car-crash, together with Dodi, in a Paris underpass. Blair was woken from a deep sleep at his constituency home, first to be told about the accident, and then to be told that Diana had died. Deeply shocked and worried about what his proper role should be, Blair spoke first to Campbell and then to the Queen, who told him that neither she nor any other senior member of the Royal Family would be making a statement. He decided, therefore, that he had to say something. Later that Sunday morning, standing in front of his local parish church, he spoke words which were transmitted live around the world:

“I feel, like everyone else in this country today, utterly devastated. Our thoughts and prayers are with Princess Diana’s family, in particular her two sons, her two boys – our hearts go out to them. We are today a nation in a state of shock…

“Her own life was often sadly touched the lives of so many others in Britain and throughout the world with joy and with comfort. How many times shall we remember her in how many different ways, with the sick, the dying, with children, with the needy? With just a look or a gesture that spoke so much more than words, she would reveal to all of us the depth of her compassion and her humanity.

“People everywhere, not just here in Britain, kept faith with Princess Diana. They liked her, they loved her, they regarded her as one of the people. She was – the People’s Princess and that is how she will stay, how she will remain in our hearts and our memories for ever.”

Although these words seem, more than twenty years on, to be reminiscent of past tributes paid to religious leaders, at the time they were much welcomed and assented to. They were the sentiments of one natural charismatic public figure to another. Blair regarded himself as the people’s Prime Minister, leading the people’s party, beyond left and right, beyond faction or ideology, with a direct line to the people’s instincts. After his impromptu eulogy, his approval rating rose to over ninety per cent, a figure not normally witnessed in democracies. Blair and Campbell then paid their greatest service to the ancient institution of the monarchy itself. The Queen, still angry and upset about Diana’s conduct and concerned for the welfare of her grandchildren, wanted a quiet funeral and to remain at Balmoral, away from the scenes of public mourning in London. However, this was potentially disastrous for her public image. There was a strange mood in the country deriving from Diana’s charisma, which Blair had referenced in his words at Trimdon. If those words had seemed to suggest that Diana was a saint, a sub-religious hysteria responded to the thought. People queued to sign a book of condolence at St James’ Palace, rather than signing it online on the website of the Prince of Wales. Those queuing even reported supernatural appearances of the dead Princess’ image. By contrast, the lack of any act of public mourning by the Windsors and the suggestion of a quiet funeral seemed to confirm Diana’s television criticisms of the Royal Family as being cold if not cruel towards her.

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In particular, the Queen was criticised for following protocol, which prohibited the flying of flags at Buckingham Palace when she was not in residence, rather than fulfilling the deep need of a grief-stricken public to see the Union flag flying there at half-mast. According to another protocol, flags were only flown at half-mast on the deaths of the monarch or their immediate blood relatives. But the crown lives or dies by such symbolic moments, and the Queen relented. Also, with Prince Charles’ full agreement, Blair and his aides put pressure on the Palace first into accepting that there would have to be a huge public funeral so that the public could express their grief, and second into accepting that the Queen should return to London. She did, just in time to quieten the genuine and growing anger about her perceived attitude towards Diana. This was a generational problem as well as a class one. The Queen had been brought up in a land of buttoned lips, stoicism and private grieving. She now reigned over a country which expected and almost required exhibitionism. For some years, the deaths of children, or the scenes of fatal accidents had been marked by little shrines of cellophane-wrapped flowers, soft toys and cards. In the run-up to Diana’s funeral parts of central London seemed almost Mediterranean in their public grieving. There were vast mounds of flowers, people sleeping out, holding up placards and weeping in the streets, strangers hugging each other.

The immense outpouring of public emotion in the weeks that followed seemed both to overwhelm and distinguish itself from the more traditional devotion to the Queen herself and to her immediate family. The crisis was rescued by a live, televised speech she made from the Palace which was striking in its informality and obviously sincere expression of personal sorrow. As Simon Schama has put it,

The tidal wave of feeling that swept over the country testified to the sustained need of the public to come together in a recognizable community of sentiment, and to do so as the people of a democratic monarchy.

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The funeral itself was like no other before, bringing the capital to a standstill. In Westminster Abbey, campaigners stood alongside aristocrats, entertainers with politicians and rock musicians with charity workers. Elton John performed a hastily rewritten version of ‘Candle in the Wind’, originally his lament for Marilyn Monroe, now dedicated to ‘England’s Rose’, and Princess Diana’s brother Earl Spencer made a half-coded attack from the pulpit on the Windsors’ treatment of his sister. This was applauded when it was relayed outside and clapping was heard in the Abbey itself. Diana’s body was driven to her last resting place at the Spencers’ ancestral home of Althorp in Northamptonshire. Nearly a decade later, and following many wild theories circulated through cyberspace which reappeared regularly in the press, an inquiry headed by a former Metropolitan Police commissioner concluded that she had died because the driver of her car was drunk and was speeding in order to throw off pursuing ‘paparazzi’ photographers. The Queen recovered her standing after her live broadcast about her wayward former daughter-in-law. She would later rise again in public esteem to be seen to be one of the most successful monarchs for centuries and the longest-serving ever. A popular film about her, including a sympathetic portrayal of these events, sealed this verdict.

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HM Queen Elizabeth II in 2001.

Tony Blair never again quite captured the mood of the country as he did in those sad late summer days. It may be that his advice and assistance to the Queen in 1997 was as vital to her as it was, in the view of Palace officials, thoroughly impertinent. His instinct for popular culture when he arrived in power was certainly uncanny. The New Age spiritualism which came out into the open when Diana died was echoed among Blair’s Downing Street circle. What other politicians failed to grasp and what he did grasp, was the power of optimism expressed in the glossy world of celebrity, and the willingness of people to forgive their favourites not just once, but again and again. One of the negative longer-term consequences of all this was that charismatic celebrities discovered that, if they apologised and bared a little of their souls in public, they could get away with most things short of murder. For politicians, even charismatic ones like Blair, life would prove a little tougher, and the electorate would be less forgiving of oft-repeated mistakes.

(to be continued).

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

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

The Brighton Bombing:

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

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

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

The Gorbachevs in London:

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

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

“Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

Heseltine and the Helicopters:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Shadowing’ the Deutschmark & ‘Diva’ Diplomacy:

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

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

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

The Bombing of Libya and ‘BBC Bias’:

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

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

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

‘PBX. Calling Mr John Simpson.’

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

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

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

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

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

“You think so?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transcript of interview with Prime Minister, 18.6.87:

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

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

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

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

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The ‘Poll Tax’ and the Peasants:

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

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

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

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

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

Bruges Bluntness & Madrid Madness:

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

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

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

Piper Alpha – The Price of Oil and Who Profited?

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

Birt, the BBC & Beijing:

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

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

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

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

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Above. The Morning of 20 May in Tiananmen Square.

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

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

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

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

Budapest, Berlin & Bucharest: Falling Dominoes of 1989:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

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

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

 

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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.

no british arms AA

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.

Major’s Soap-Box: The Spring 1992 General Election Campaign.   Leave a comment

Meeting His People:

Having taken over the UK premiership from Margaret Thatcher and fought off the Tory “bastards” on the Eurosceptic Right in Parliament, John Major called a General Election for April 1992. BBC Chief Correspondent John Simpson was asked to cover the PM’s personal campaign. After covering the bombing of Baghdad, this should have been a stroll in the park. It turned out to be one of his less pleasant of his assignments to date. On Sunday 15 March he travelled to Sawley in Huntingdon, Major’s own constituency. Here he was to Meet the People, his people of course. As he commented:

The words were always said with a particular reverence by his handlers, as though real people were the greatest rarities in the world, unpredictable creatures who could only be approached with extreme care.

It has some echoes, a generation later, in the contemporary confection, the Will of the People, in the current Brexit debate. Simpson recalls that the whole event was dreadful. Major sat on a stool, looking uncomfortable, and a group of specially invited, carefully scanned local supporters sat equally uncomfortably in front of him. Everything had been so rehearsed that any life it originally had had long since been sucked out of it. The party ‘hacks’ reminded Simpson of Jehovah’s Witnesses. They were true believers, trying their best to be patient with the sceptics. This isn’t a press conference, it’s a people conference, he was told. You’ll be able to spectate at it. He’s not just going to speak to the people, it’s for the people to be able to ask whatever’s on their minds.  As it transpired, the people were as embarrassed and shy as Major himself seemed, perched on his stool. What was on their minds was the kind of thing they had read in the tabloid newspapers:

‘Is it true,’ one asked, ‘that if the Socialists win, they will do lasting damage to the British economy?’ 

The questions were sometimes so extreme that Major, a fair-minded man, sounded less anti-Labour than they were. The best he could do was to say that nothing much was going on in the country.

“Transcript of report from Sawley, Northants, 15.3.92

“Speaker: Rt Hon John Major, PC, MP.

“JM: Back in 1979 there was a real feeling for change. I’m telling you, it ain’t there now.”

As Simpson drove to the studios, he thought over whether he should give his report without adjectives, just giving a bald account of what had happened. Yet he felt that if the overall impression he had received of the event was of a lack of imagination and understanding, he should say so. He stopped beside the road and began writing:

“Transcript of report for 6.25 News. 15.3.92

“JS: The campaign proper began for John Major with a chance on BBC Radio to get in a brief, quotable thrust at his opponents:

“JM: This fetish the opposition parties have for raising taxes seems very damaging to the economic interests of this country.

“JS: But the business of meeting the people began on his own home ground: In Sawley, part of his own constituency. The people he’d come to see had been carefully invited by the local Conservative Party and the questions weren’t exactly designed to cause him problems…

“JS: Mr Major is no great orator, and his handlers think he’s better with small groups. But it was all desperately tame today. There are promises that his campaign may liven up a little later.”

‘Spin Doctors’ and ‘Heavy Breathers’:

The ‘spin-doctors’ at Conservative Central Office were furious when they heard this all-too-truthful account. The editor who began taking their angry calls even before the end of the broadcast rang Simpson to congratulate him on the report, but he wouldn’t have been human if he hadn’t wished that this particular cup had passed him by. The functionaries from Tory Central Office had identified Simpson as a wrecker, probably a paid-up member of the Labour Party. Yet the Labour Party was claiming that the BBC was biased against them. Neil Kinnock’s campaign manager warned:

If the BBC believes it can operate like this because the Conservatives hate it but Labour has a sentimental attachment to it, it had better think again. If it goes on like this and Labour wins, there won’t be as much sentiment around for the BBC as it believes.

In reality, the Labour Party wanted to control the BBC just as much as the Conservatives did. The only difference was that under Margaret Thatcher the latter gave the impression they were always thinking of tampering with the BBC’s structure. Over the decades going back to its founding, senior politicians have retained the habit of picking up the phone to the broadcasters as if they themselves own them. This is known by TV and Radio journalists as ‘heavy breathing’, and it succeeds in frightening them far too often. All too often the journalists or their editors try to be conciliatory and to explain that no offence was intended. The mere fact of replying like that encouraged the politicians to complain again. Although a genuine mistake was sometimes made, in John Simpson’s experience that was relatively rare. The parties complained most when their senior politicians had done badly in an interview, and they chose to blame the broadcasters for the poor performance. Simpson singled out ‘a new gladiator’ who had turned up in this ‘arena’ for particular attention:

I rather liked Tony Blair’s press spokesman, Alistair Campbell, when I was at Westminster: he was one of the freer-thinking political correspondents. Perhaps, like me, his time at Westminster left him less than starry-eyed about the nature of the lobby. He says what he thinks, without worrying too much about the feelings of those he talks to…

But Alistair Campbell is a man with an agenda. He wants government ministers to look and sound good on air, regardless of whether the are good. When interviewers of the quality of Jeremy Paxman and John Humphrys are questioning them, they don’t always shine. The Paxman style of interviewing is something that can only exist on British television. He is a national asset, and someone the BBC can and should feel great pride and confidence in. Of course Alistair Campbell and all his equivalents in British politics dislike him: he is the scourge of sloppy policy-making and muddle-headed ministers. And of course he is feared by all those who have a vested interest in tame interviews and tame broadcasting.

One morning John Humphrys had just walked out of the studio at the end of the ‘Today’ programme (on BBC Radio 4), and picked up the phone which was ringing on a nearby desk. He listened for a while to some threatening character from one of the parties.

‘Thanks for that,’ he said when the phone went quiet, ‘and I wonder if I could make an observation?’

‘Yes, of course.’

‘Eff off.’

And he put the phone down.

In many ways my complaint is less against the robustness of the politicos and more against the feebleness of the broadcasters. There is no reason on earth why, in a free society, people like Alistair Campbell shouldn’t try to put pressure on the broadcasters.

But equally there is no reason why the broadcasters should pay the slightest attention, except in cases where they have broadcast something which is false or tendentious. In that case they should be forced to put it right as soon as possible. There should only be one answer to the bully, the blackmailer and the heavy breather:.. ‘le mot de John Humphrys’. 

Perhaps the current American Press and Media pack should take courage from the British example in their dealings with Donald Trump’s accusations of ‘fake news’ operations among the White House Press Corps, and not be so deferential, but rather stand up for their freedoms as The Fourth Estate. 

Meeting ‘Real’ People:

According to Simpson, the 1992 UK General Election was altogether nastier than either the 1987 or 1997 campaigns. Like some of the US press today, he was branded an enemy, and was treated so unpleasantly by the more obsequious editors and reporters that he preferred to travel with the photographers and television cameramen. Meanwhile, John Major’s television advisers continued to create a campaign which emphasised the very qualities which seemed to diminish him most: the mildness, the uninspired speaking style, the pen-in-the top pocket concern with detail. 

On Wednesday, 25 March John Major was in Scotland, and the Media representatives flew up there with him. This was a more pleasant trip for Simpson, as he got on well with one of The Guardian columnists. He knew he had to be careful: everything he said was likely to be taken down and used in evidence against him. He was beginning to write up his notes on the plane at the end of the day when John Major came down the aisle and asked him if his campaign was really as bad as Simpson was reporting. The Guardian columnist, David Hare, published the conversation in his book, Asking Around, chronicling the campaign, later the same year:

John Major moves behind me to talk to John Simpson, and I suddenly realize he is asking for professional advice. Scraps of their conversation drift across me.

Simpson: …not sure about your campaign… not sure you’re showing yourself to the best advantage.

Major: No. I agree. I agree.

Simpson: …all seems a bit pointless… ways in which you could be better presented…

Major: I know. I know. What do you think I should do?

Simpson told Major that it wasn’t his job to give advice to politicians, but that it didn’t make good television to see politicians with ‘believers’ rather than ‘real people’. The following Saturday they were in a particularly depressing shopping centre in Luton. They had turned up early, and so had the Trotskyists, ready to give Major a hard time. When his blue coach arrived, the PM stayed on board, but one of his aides got off, opened the baggage compartment and pulled out a wooden construction of some kind. Then Major got off and someone handed him a megaphone. He got up on the construction, a soapbox, and began to rate:

Something came over him, some distant memory of being a Young Conservative in the sixties, perhaps, and he grew louder and more confident, and his voice started to drown out the shouting. There was no actual violence, though somehow the unworthy thought came to my mind that if he took a bottle on the head and a trickle of blood were to run down those decorously mild features, it would be worth at least ten marginals to him… Of course, the sight of chanting, egg-throwing lefties did wonders for John Major’s standing.

“No one’s going to keep me away from the people,” he proclaimed in his harsh, much imitated, amplified voice, as though anyone was trying to… 

He was sweating slightly as he got down from his box, and the rain had speckled his glasses.

“So that is the kind of thing you wanted?” he asked me…

“It’ll look good on television, certainly,” I said. And it did.

After that, until 9 April, the soap box went with him wherever he went. Some said that it was the reason he won the election. It certainly had something to do with it, though I recall the unpopularity of Labour’s tax plans with marginal, ‘middle income’ Midlanders like me, many of whom would have been embarrassed to admit to voting Tory to the pollsters. Perhaps his instinct that this was not a time for change appealed to the innate conservatism of the British people. In the event, it will go down as a sensational personal success for him and his soapbox.  

Source:

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

The Latter Day Elizabethan Britons, 1952 – 2002: Chapter Four   Leave a comment

Chapter Four: Those Two Impostors: Triumph and Disaster                       

In 1978 the House of Lords held a special debate on the state of the English language. Due to rapid social and economic transformation, thanks mainly to the technology of mass communication, fears for the future of British English had become one of the staples of newspaper columns and television chat shows. Now it was the turn of the peers of the realm to have their say. The record of the debate, The English language: Deterioration and Usage, makes very interesting reading. All but one of the speakers in it accepted, without question, that the language was deteriorating. They unrolled a catalogue of familiar complaints. One peer remarked,

It seems to me virtually impossible for a modern poet to write ’the choir of gay companions’. What has happened is that is that a word has been used for propaganda purposes which have destroyed its useful meaning in English.

 

Pronunciation was also considered to be slipping, and here the BBC came in for a substantial amount of criticism for failing in its clear duty to uphold the standards of English. There was praise for the Plain English Campaign, which had begun a series of successful battles against Civil Service gobbledygook, and complaints about the prevalence of jargon in official documents. There were also laments over the latest translations of the Bible and the recent revisions of the Book of Common Prayer. And, of course, more than one noble speaker blamed the Americans. Lord Somers, observed:

If there is a more hideous language on the face of the earth than the American form of English, I should like to know what it is!

 

In fact, the noble peers blamed just about every institution in society – the schools, the universities, and the mass media. Children were no longer educated in grammar or the classics. Newspaper, radio and television were familiarising the public with a language that depends on generalisations which are usually imprecise and often deliberately ambiguous… a language that makes unblushing use of jargon whenever that can assist evasion. They also displayed more than a touch of xenophobia, one of them arguing rather perversely that a major cause of deterioration in the use of the English language is very simply the enormous increase in the number of people who are using it. The most revealing comment of all was perhaps the one made by Lord Davies of Leek who remarked,

Am I right in assuming that in an age tortured by uncertainty with respect to religion, God, family, self, money and property, there is a worldwide collapse of not only the values of the past but of our language which, more and more, tends to be vague, indecisive, careless and often callous?

 

Certainly, as with sexual intercourse, the moral relativist revolution of the sixties and seventies had also encouraged a more permissive approach to social intercourse. Tongues were loosened and noses unblocked. However, Lord Davies’ remark was using language-change as a means of complaining about deeper changes in society. Against this, we might point out that speakers of Standard British Mercian English have often taken second place to other users, whether Scots, Irish or Welsh, the East Anglian Founding Fathers, Cockneys, Jews, Caribbeans or Indians. Influential changes and diversifications have usually occurred at the cultural centre of the language rather than at its fringes, in Britain itself. From this perspective, Standard British English remains as radical a tool as it did in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Just as in the ninth century, the fusion of Norse and Saxon languages was happening far from the main centres of trade and administration in the South of England, so in the late twentieth century the dominant forms, accents and voices in British English as it was used and taught were not those of the Establishment, speaking in the House of Lords, but those of Brixton, the East End and Coventry.

The Celtic countries and provinces also have their own brands of English, each of which can be subdivided into further localised varieties. For example, Welsh English, or Anglo-Welsh, has differing northern and southern varieties, also spoken in some of the border areas of England. The traditional Northumbrian Saxon dialect, sometimes referred to as the Scots’ language, and there is also Lallans, another lowland Scots dialect. Both have literary traditions. In Northern Ireland, Ulster Scots remains as the dialect of those who migrated from south-west Scotland. While some traditional features of these varieties fall out of use, other innovations, both regional and national, continue to be made to British English, so that the idea that there will one day be a uniform standard spoken English throughout the British Isles is unlikely to ever become a reality. In addition, there are still (officially) half a million Welsh-speakers, about one in five of the resident population of Wales. In Scotland, the Gaelic speech community is just over one per cent of the population, sparsely distributed through the western islands and highlands. In the Republic of Ireland, about forty per cent of the population have some level of Irish, but the number of habitual speakers is far lower. There are few monoglot speakers of either Irish or Welsh, but both languages are taught to school-leaving age to all students, thus ensuring continuing bilingualism. Both languages have strongly influenced the forms, vocabulary and pronunciation of Anglo-Welsh and Irish English, sometimes deliberately recorded by poets and writers.

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Above: Factory workers strike over low pay

In the 1977-79 there was an explosion of resentment, largely by poorly paid public employees, against a minority Labour government incomes policy they felt was discriminatory. It began earlier in the year, but got far worse with a series of strikes going into winter, resulting in rubbish being left piled up in the streets throughout the country.This became known as the Winter of Discontent after Shakespeare’s opening soliloquy spoken by Richard, Duke of Gloucester in his history play, Richard III. The scenes provided convincing propaganda for the conservatives in the subsequent election in May. Using the slogan Labour isn’t working, which appeared on huge hoardings showing long dole queues, they came back to power with a clear majority in the General Election in 1979, led by Margaret Thatcher, who promised a return to the values which had made Victorian Britain great. However, what the British people got was more of a return to the hard-nosed Toryism of the interwar years as the Thatcher government set about the task of deliberately lengthening those dole queues. As wage-rises were believed to be the main source of inflation, heavy unemployment, it was often openly argued, would weaken trade union bargaining power, and was a price worth paying. At the same time, an economic squeeze was introduced, involving heavy tax increases and a reduction in public borrowing to deflate the economy, thus reducing both demand and employment. In the 1980s, two million manufacturing jobs disappeared, most of them by 1982.

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Above: Rubbish is left piled up in London’s Leicester Square in February 1979

In Coventry, nearly sixty thousand jobs were lost in this period of recession. The Conservative policy of high interest rates tended to overvalue the pound, particularly in the USA, the major market for Coventry’s specialist cars, leading to a rapid decline in demand. Also, the Leyland management embarked on a new rationalisation plan. The company’s production was to be concentrated at its Cowley and Longbridge plants. Triumph production was transferred to Cowley, and Rover models were to be produced at the new Solihull plant. The Coventry engine plant at Courthouse Green was closed and Alvis, Climax and Jaguar were sold off to private buyers. In these first three years of the Thatcher government the number of Leyland employees in the city fell from twenty-seven thousand to eight thousand. One writer summarised the effects of Conservative policy on Coventry in these years as turning a process of gentle decline into quickening collapse. Overall the city’s top manufacturing firms shed thirty-one thousand workers between 1979 and 1982. Well-known pillars of Coventry’s economic base such as Herbert’s, Triumph Motors and Renold’s all disappeared. Unemployment had stood at just five per cent in 1979, the same level as in 1971. By 1982 it had risen to sixteen per cent.

 001

None of this had been expected locally when the Thatcher government came to power. After all, Coventry had prospered reasonably well during the previous Tory administrations. The last real boom in the local economy had been stimulated by the policies of Ted Heath’s Chancellor, Anthony Barber. However, the brakes were applied rather than released by the new government. Monetarist policy was quick to bite into the local industry. Redundancy lists and closure notices in the local press became as depressingly regular as the obituary column. The biggest surprise was the lack of resistance from the local Labour movement, given Coventry’s still formidable trade union movement. There was an atmosphere of bewilderment and an element of resignation characterised the responses of many trades-union officials. It was as if the decades of anti-union editorials in the Coventry Evening Telegraph were finally being realised. There were signs of resistance at Longbridge, but the BL boss, Michael Edwardes, had introduced a tough new industrial relations programme which had seen the removal from the plant of Red Robbo, Britain’s strongest motor factory trade union leader. He had also closed the Speke factory on Merseyside, demonstrating that he could and would close plants in the face of trade union opposition. Coventry’s car workers and their union leaders had plenty of experience in local wage bargaining in boom times, but lacked strategies to resist factory closures in times of recession. Factory occupation, imitating its successful use on the continent, had been tried at the Meriden Triumph Motorcycle factory, but with disastrous results. The opposition from workers was undoubtedly diminished by redundancy payments which in many cases promised to cushion families for a year or two from the still unrealised effects of the recession.

002 Above: Employment levels in Coventry

Young people were the real victims of these redundancies, as there were now no places for them to fill. The most depressing feature of Coventry’s unemployment was that the most severely affected were the teenagers leaving the city’s newly-completed network of Community Comprehensives. As the recession hit the city large numbers of them joined the job market only to find that expected opportunities in the numerous factories had evaporated. By June 1980, forty-six per cent of the city’s sixteen to eighteen year-olds were seeking employment and over half of the fourteen thousand who had left school the previous year were still unemployed. Much prized craft apprentices all but vanished and only ninety-five apprentices commenced training in 1981. The Local Education Authority was pioneering in its attempts to provide even basic employment and training for youngsters in cooperation with central government schemes and with major firms such as GEC and Courtaulds. It established a city-wide Careers Service, with full-time officers attached to individual schools, but working from a centralised service for employers and school leavers. In 1981-2, some 5,270 youths were found posts in training course, work experience and community projects, but with limited long-term effects. The early 1980s were barren years for Coventry youngsters, despite the emergence of their own pop group, The Specials, and their own theme song, Ghost Town, which also gave vent to what was becoming a national phenomenon. The lyric’s sombre comparison of boom time and bust was felt much more sharply in Coventry than elsewhere.

Coventry paid a very heavy price in the 1980s for its over-commitment to the car industry, suffering more than other comparable Midland towns such as Leicester and   Nottingham, both of which had broader-based economies. Its peculiar dependence on manufacturing and its historically weak tertiary sector meant that it was a poor location for the so-called sunrise industries. These were high-tech enterprises, based largely along the axial belt running from London to Slough, Reading and Swindon, so they had little initial impact on unemployment in Coventry and other Midland and Northern industrial centres. The growth in service industries was also, initially at least, mainly to the benefit of the traditional administrative centres, such as Birmingham, rather than to its West Midland neighbours. While little development work took place in local industry, but Nissan recruited hundreds of foremen from Coventry for its new plant in Sunderland, announced before the Thatcher government, and Talbot removed its Whitley research and development facility to Paris in 1983, along with its French-speaking Coventrians. Only at Leyland’s Canley site did research provide a service for plants outside the city. For the first time in a hundred years, Coventry had become a net exporter of labour. By the time of the 1981 Census, the city had already lost 7.5 per cent of its 1971 population. The main losses were among the young skilled and technical management sectors, people who any town or city can ill afford to lose. Summing up the city’s position at this time, Lancaster and Mason emphasised the dramatic transition in its fortunes from boomtown, a magnet for labour from the depressed areas, to a depressed district itself:

Coventry in the mid 1980s displays more of the confidence in the future that was so apparent in the immediate post-war years. The city, which for four decades was the natural habitat of the affluent industrial worker is finding it difficult to adjust to a situation where the local authority and university rank amongst the largest employers. Coventry’s self-image of progressiveness and modernity has all but vanished. The citizens now largely identify themselves and their environment as part of depressed Britain.  

 002Above: A 1982 cartoon: Britain was at war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands. The inhabitants of the islands, a dependent territory of the United Kingdom, wanted to remain under British rule, but Argentina invaded.

Thatcher was victorious, but it was a costly war for the British.

Below: The Royal Marines march towards Port Stanley during the Falklands War, June 1982

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The government had promised in 1979 that a restructuring of the economy would be followed by increased investment and employment opportunities but three years later, in the spring of 1982 there was no sign of this promise being kept.   There had already been serious rioting by the disaffected of Brixton in 1981. After this, the Tories had looked destined for defeat in the 1983 General Election, but following the Falklands War, the Iron Lady, also variously characterised as Boadicea and Britannia, swept back to power on a tidal wave of revived jingoistic imperialism. Even in Labour heartlands, such as south Wales, the Tories made major gains. The government then took a more confrontational approach at home. As in the 1920s, resistance to brutal rationalisation through the closure or selling off of uneconomic enterprises, or by wage or job reductions, was met by determined opposition, never tougher than in the confrontation of 1984-85 with the National Union of Mineworkers, led by Arthur Scargill. The National Coal Board, supported by the government, put forward a massive programme of pit closures. The bitter, year-long miners’ strike which followed was roundly defeated, amid scenes of mass picketing and some violence from both miners and the police. Ultimately the government proved too determined even for the miners, and had, in any case, built up the resources to resist their anticipated demands for it to back down.

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Above: Miners’ leader, Arthur Scargill/ Striking Yorkshire miners

However, the strike and the colliery closures left a legacy of bitterness and division in British which was only too apparent at the time of Margaret Thatcher’s recent state funeral, and is the subject or background for many recent films, some of which have distorted or trivialised our recollection of the reality. Among the better representations of it is Billy Elliott. Under the thirty years rule, the government documents from 1984 have only just become available, so we can now look forward to the more rounded perspectives of historians on these events. Already, politicians have called for government apologies to be given to the miners and their families.

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Above: In the Durham Coalfield, pits were often the only real source of employment in local communities,

so the economic and social impact of closures could be devastating.

The 1984-5 Strike was an attempt to force a reversal of the decline.

The pit closures went ahead and the severe contraction of the mining industry continued: it vanished altogether in Kent, while in Durham two-thirds of the pits were closed. The government had little interest in ensuring the survival of the industry, determined to break its militant and well-organised union. The social cost of the closures, especially in places in which mining was the single major employer, as in many of the pit villages of Durham and the valleys of south Wales, was devastating. The entire local economy was crippled. On Tyneside and Merseyside a more general deindustrialisation occurred. Whole sections of industry, including coal, steel and shipbuilding, simply vanished from their traditional areas. Of all the areas of the United Kingdom, however, it was Northern Ireland that suffered the highest levels of unemployment. This was largely because the continuing sectarian violence discouraged inward investment in the six counties of the Province.

Nationally, in February 1986 there were over 3.4 million unemployed, although statistics were manipulated for political reasons and the real figure is therefore a matter of speculation. The socially corrosive effects of the return of widespread mass unemployment, not seen since the early thirties, were felt throughout the country, manifesting themselves in the further bouts of inner-city rioting that broke out in 1985. This was more serious for the government than the rioting against the Means Test of half a century before, because it occurred in cities throughout the country, rather than in depressed mining areas. London was just as vulnerable as Liverpool, and a crucial contributory factor was the number of young men of Asian and Caribbean origin who saw no hope of ever entering employment: opportunities were minimal and they felt particularly discriminated against. The term underclass was increasingly used to describe those who felt themselves to be completely excluded from the benefits of prosperity.

The only sizeable addition to the immigrant population during the recession of the early eighties was among the Polish community. After the Polish government’s clampdown on the shipyard-led Solidarity movement in 1980, about two thousand refugees entered Britain. It was hard for researchers at the time to assess the extent to which these new arrivals influenced the already well-established Polish communities and organisations throughout Britain. The only reported figures, taken from a Language Census conducted by ILEA between 1981 and 1987, shows nearly six hundred Polish pupils in London schools. Assuming that these were pupils with Polish as their strong first language (L1), requiring English as an Added Language (EAL) tuition support, rather than established Polish bilingual children with English as a strong L1 or L2, we might therefore conclude that the majority of these new immigrants settled in London, probably using already-established kinship networks and institutions. No matter how much Polish was the language used at home, second-generation Polish children showed a strong preference to switch to English in conversations involving the expression of abstract concepts, even within the home context.

The Linguistic Minorities Project (LMP) Survey, conducted in Coventry and Bradford in 1985 showed that the Polish language skills of the adult respondents were, perhaps predictably, very high. However, the reported levels of fluency in Polish for members of respondents’ households as a whole, likely to include a high proportion of British-born children, was significantly lower. Ninety-one per cent of the respondents in Coventry reported that their children used only English between themselves, and third-generation children in Polish Saturday schools used Polish only with the teachers and assistants. The influx of younger first-generation Poles in the 1980s helped to create new relationships in which second and third generations could use Polish in more realistic ways. The Survey also showed that in Coventry and Bradford, whereas almost half of Polish workers were in a workplace where at least one fellow-worker was a Polish-speaker, more than sixty per cent of them used only English with their workmates. Nevertheless, the Poles maintain a network of friends with whom they could use their mother tongue. They also had a wide range of opportunities to use the language in the community:

The Pole can buy Polish food from Polish shops, eat in Polish restaurants, sleep in Polish hotels or digs, with a Polish landlady, entertain friends in Polish clubs, attend a Polish doctor (over five hundred are practising in Britain) or dentist (eighty Polish dental surgeries), have a Polish priest and be buried by a Polish undertaker.

In the 1980s, Polish was not taught in the mainstream schools, though there were some unsuccessful attempts made in this direction in Stepney in 1981. Some years later, ILEA approached the Polish Educational Society Abroad with a similar suggestion which also failed, partly because Poles insist that mother tongue teaching must include Polish cultural content. In 1982 a section of Polish Studies was added to the School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies at the University of London. For L1 or bilingual speakers of Polish, the degree lasted for three years and included language, literature and history as compulsory elements. Additional options included economics, politics, geography and planning. The Polish Section also organises conferences for Polish teachers and pupils. Otherwise, only Oxford and Cambridge hold lectures on Polish as a Slavic Language. These developments encouraged a note of optimism for the Polish community in Britain at a time when other immigrant groups were struggling to integrate, or felt alienated by the host country, particularly in the second and third generations. Together with the arrival of the Solidarity generation, there was a revival of awareness of linguistic and cultural roots in Britain in this decade. This helped the Poles to integrate into British society while resisting linguistic and cultural assimilation: becoming British did not necessarily involve losing their Polish identity.

By 1987, service industries were offering an alternative means of employment in Britain. Between 1983 and 1987 about one and a half million new jobs were created. Most of these were for women, many of whom were entering employment for the first time, and many of the jobs available were part-time and, of course, lower paid than the jobs lost in primary and secondary industries. By contrast, the total number of men in full-time employment fell still further. Many who had left mining or manufacturing for the service sector also earned far less. By the end of the century there were more people employed in Indian restaurants than in the coal and steel industries combined, but for much lower pay. The economic recovery that led to the growth of this new employment was based mainly on finance, banking and credit. Little was invested in home-grown manufacturing, but far more was invested overseas, with British foreign investments rising from 2.7 billion pounds in 1975 to 90 billion in 1985. At the same time, there was also a degree of re-industrialisation, especially in the Southeast, where new industries employing the most advanced technology were growing. In fact, many industries shed a large proportion of their workforce but, using new technology, maintained or improved their output. These new industries were certainly not confined to the M4 Corridor by the late eighties. By then, Nissan’s car plant in Sunderland had become the most productive in Europe, while Siemens established a microchip plant at Wallsend. However, such companies did not employ large numbers of local workers. Nissan recruited its foremen in Coventry, while Siemens invested more than a billion pounds, but only employed a workforce of about 1,800.

Regionally based industries suffered a dramatic decline during this period. Coal-mining, for example, was decimated in the decade following the 1984-85 miners’ strike, not least because of the shift of the electricity generating industry to other alternative energy sources, especially gas. During the period 1984-87 the coal industry shed a hundred and seventy thousand miners, and there was a further net loss of employment in the coalfields, with the exception of north Warwickshire and south Derbyshire, in the early 1990s. The economic effect upon local communities could be devastating, as the 1996 film Brassed Off accurately shows, with its memorable depiction of the social impact on the Yorkshire pit village of Grimethorpe of the 1992 closure programme.

The trouble with the economic strategy followed by the Thatcher governments was that South Wales, Lancashire, the West Riding of Yorkshire, Tyneside and Clydesdale were precisely those regions that had risen to extraordinary prosperity as part of the British imperial enterprise. Now they were being written off as disposable assets, so what interest did the Scots in particular, but also the Welsh, have in remaining as part of that enterprise, albeit a new corporation in the making? The understandable euphoria over Thatcher and her party winning three successive general elections disguised the fact the last of these victories was gained at the price of perpetuating a deep rift in Britain’s social geography. Without the Falklands factor to help revive the Union flag, a triumphalist English conservatism was increasingly imposing its rule over the other nations of an increasingly disunited Kingdom.   Thatcher’s constituency was, overwhelmingly, the well-off middle and professional classes in the south of England, whilst the distressed northern zones of derelict factories, pits, ports and terraced streets were left to rot and rust. People living in these latter areas were expected to lift themselves up by their own bootstraps, retrain for work in the up-and-coming industries of the future and if need be get on Tory Chairman, Norman Tebbitt’s bicycle and move to one of the areas of strong economic growth such as Cambridge, Milton Keynes or Slough, where those opportunities were clustered. However, little was provided by publicly funded retraining and, if this was available, there was no guarantee of a job at the end of it. The point of the computer revolution in industry was to save labour, not to expand it.

In the late 1980s, the north-south divide seemed as intractable as it had all century, with high unemployment continuing to be concentrated in the declining manufacturing areas of the North and West of the British Isles. That the north-south divide increasingly had a political dimension as well as an economic one was borne out by the 1987 General Election in the UK. Margaret Thatcher’s third majority was this time largely based in the votes of the South and East of England. North of a line running from the Severn estuary through Coventry and on to the Humber estuary, the long decline of Toryism, especially in Scotland, where it was reduced to only ten seats, was apparent to all observers. At the same time, the national two-party system seemed to be breaking down so that south of that line, the Liberal-SDP Alliance were the main challengers to the Conservatives in many constituencies.

Culturally, the Thatcher counter-revolution ran into something of a cul-de-sac, or rather the cobbled streets of Salford, typified in the long-running TV soap opera, Coronation Street. Millions in the old British industrial economy had a deeply ingrained loyalty to the place where they had grown up, gone to school, got married and had their kids; to the pub, their park, their football team. In that sense at least the Social Revolution of the fifties and sixties had recreated cities and towns that, for all their ups and downs, their poverty and pain, were real communities. Fewer people were willing to give up on Liverpool and Leeds, Nottingham and Derby than the pure laws of the employment market-place demanded. For many working-class British people, it was their home which determined their quality of life, not the width of their wage-packet.

Not everything that the Thatcher governments did was out of tune with social reality. The sale of council houses created an owner-occupier class which, as Simon Schama has written, corresponded to the long passion of the British to be kings and queens of their own little castles. Sales of remaining state-owned industries, such as the public utility companies, were less successful, since the concept of stakeholderdship was much less deeply rooted in British traditions, and the mixed fortunes of both these privatised companies and their stocks did nothing to help change customs. Most misguided of all was the decision to call a poll tax imposed on house and flat owners a community charge, and then to impose it first, as a trial run, in Scotland, where the Tories already had little support. The grocer’s daughter from Grantham that it would be a good way of creating a property-owning, tax-paying democracy, where people paid according to the size of their household. This was another mistaken assumption. Soon after, the iron lady was challenged for her leadership of the Party, and therefore the country, and was forced to step down from the contest. She was then replaced as PM by one of her loyal deputies, John Major, another middle-class anti-patrician, the son of a garden-gnome salesman, apparently committed to family values and a return to basics. Although winning the 1992 General Election, the Major government ended up being overwhelmed by an avalanche of sexual and financial scandals and blunders, as well as by the back-bench right-wing in the House of Commons who wanted Britain to withdraw from the European Union.

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The old north-south divide in Britain seemed to be eroding during the recession of the early 1990s, which hit southeast England relatively hard, but it soon reasserted itself with a vengeance later in the decade as young people moved south in search of jobs and property prices rose. Even though the shift towards service industries was reducing regional economic diversity, the geographical distribution of regions eligible for European structural funds for economic improvement confirmed the continuing north-south divide. The administrative structure of Britain also underwent major changes by the end of the nineties. The relative indifference of the Conservative ascendancy to the plight of industrial Scotland and Wales had transformed the prospects of the nationalist parties in both countries. In the 1987 election, Scottish and Welsh nationalists, previously confined mainly to middle-class, rural and intellectual constituencies, now made huge inroads into Conservative areas and even into the Labour heartlands of industrial south Wales and Clydeside.

In a 1992 poll in Scotland, half of those asked said that they were in favour of independence within the European Union. In the General Election of the same year, however, with Mrs Thatcher and her poll tax having departed the political scene, there was a minor Tory recovery. Five years later this was wiped out by the Labour landslide of 1997, when all the Conservative seats in both Scotland and Wales were lost. Only one Scottish seat was regained by the Tories in 2001. The Tories became labelled as a centralising, purely English party. Nationalist political sentiment grew in Scotland and to a lesser extent in Wales. The devolution promised and instituted by Tony Blair’s new landslide Labour government did seem to take some of the momentum out of the nationalist fervour , but apparently at the price of stoking the fires of English nationalism among Westminster Tories, resentful at the Scots and Welsh having representatives in their own assemblies as well as in the UK Parliament. In 1999, twenty years after the first campaigns for devolution, a devolved Parliament was set up in Scotland, in Edinburgh, Wales got an Assembly in Cardiff, and Northern Ireland had a power-sharing Assembly again at Stormont near Belfast. In 2000, an elected regional assembly was established for Greater London, the area covered by the inner and outer boroughs in the capital, with a directly elected Mayor. This new authority replaced the Greater London Council which had been abolished by the Thatcher Government in 1986, and was given responsibility over local planning and transport.

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The process of deindustrialisation continued into the nineties with the closure of the Swan Hunter shipyard on the Tyne in May 1993. It was the last working shipyard in the region, but failed to secure a warship contract. It was suffering the same long-term decline that reduced shipbuilding from an employer of two hundred thousand in 1914 to a mere twenty-six thousand by the end of the century. This devastated the local economy, especially as a bitter legal wrangle over redundancy payments left many former workers without any compensation at all for the loss of what they had believed was employment for life. As the map above shows, the closure’s effects of spread far further than Tyneside and the Northeast, which were certainly badly hit by the closure, with two hundred and forty suppliers losing their contracts. According to Keynesian economics, the results of rising unemployment are multiplied as the demand for goods and services declines. The closure of Swan Hunter certainly had a widespread impact on Suppliers as far afield as Southampton and Glasgow, as well as in the West Midlands and the Southeast. They lost valuable orders and therefore also had to make redundancies. Forty-five suppliers in Greater London also lost business. Therefore, from the closure of one single, large-scale engineering concern, unemployment resulted even in the most prosperous parts of the country. In the opposite economic direction, the growing North Sea oil industry helped to spread employment more widely throughout the Northeast and the Eastern side of Scotland, with its demands for drilling platforms and support ships, and this benefit was also felt nationally, both within Scotland and more widely, throughout the UK. However, this did little in the short-term to soften the blow of the Swan Hunter closure.

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Overall, however, the 1990s were years of general and long-sustained economic expansion. The continued social impact of the decline in coal, steel and shipbuilding was to some extent mitigated by inward investment initiatives. Across most of the British Isles, there was also a continuing decline in the number of manufacturing jobs throughout the nineties. Although there was an overall recovery in the car industry, aided by the high pound in the export market, much of this was due to the new technology of robotics which made the industry far less labour-intensive and therefore more productive. The service sector, however, expanded, and general levels of unemployment, especially in Britain, fell dramatically in the 1990s. Financial services saw strong growth, particularly in places such as the London Docklands and Edinburgh. Indeed, by the end of the decade, the financial industry was the largest employer in northern manufacturing towns like Leeds, which grew rapidly, aided by its ability to offer a range of cultural facilities that helped to attract an array of UK company headquarters. Manchester, similarly, enjoyed a renaissance, particularly in music and football. Manchester United’s commercial success led it to become the world’s largest sports franchise.

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Other areas of the country were helped by their ability to attract high technology industry. Silicon Glen in central Scotland was, by the end of the decade, the largest producer of computer equipment in Europe. Computing and software design was also one of the main engines of growth along the silicon highway of the M4 Corridor west of London. But areas of vigorous expansion were not necessarily dominated by new technologies. The economy of East Anglia, especially Cambridgeshire, had grown rapidly in the 1980s and continued to do so throughout the 1990s. While Cambridge itself, aided by the university-related science parks, fostered high-tech companies, especially in biotechnology and pharmaceuticals, expansion in Peterborough, for instance, was largely in low-tech areas of business services and distribution.

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Getting around Britain was, at least, getting easier. By 1980 there were nearly one and a half thousand miles of motorway in Britain. In the last twenty years of the century, the stretching of the congested motorway network to just over two thousand miles, mostly involving the linking of existing sections. Motorway building and airport development was delayed by lengthy public enquiries and well-organised public protest. Improving transport links was seen as an important means of stimulating regional development as well as combating local congestion. Major road developments in the 1990s included the completion of the M25 orbital motorway around London, the Skye bridge and the M40 link between London and Birmingham. However, despite this construction programme, congestion remained a problem: the M25 was labelled the largest car park on the planet, while average traffic speeds in central London fell to only ten miles per hour in 2001, a famous poster on the underground pointing out that this was the same speed as in 1901. Improvements to public transport networks tended to be concentrated in urban centres, such as the light rail networks in Manchester, Sheffield and Croydon. At the same time, the migration of some financial services and much of the Fleet Street national press to major new developments in London’s Docklands prompted the development of the Docklands Light Railway and the Jubilee line extension, as well as some of the most expensive urban motorway in Europe. Undoubtedly, the most important transport development was the Channel Tunnel rail link from Folkestone to Calais, completed in 1994. By the beginning of the new millennium, millions of people had travelled by rail from London to Paris in only three hours.

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The development of Ashford in Kent, following the opening of the Channel Tunnel rail link, provides a good example of the relationship between transport links and general economic development. The railway had come to Ashford in 1842 and a railway works was established in the town. This was eventually run down and closed between 1981 and 1993, but this did not undermine the local economy. Instead, Ashford benefited from the Channel Tunnel rail link, which made use of the old railway lines running through the town, and its population actually grew by ten per cent in the 1990s. The completion of the Tunnel combined with the M25 London orbital motorway, with its M20 spur, to give the town an international catchment area of some eighty-five million people within a single day’s journey. This, together with the opening of Ashford International railway station as a main terminal for the rail link to Europe, attracted a range of engineering, financial, distribution and manufacturing companies. Fourteen business parks were opened in and around the town, together with a science park owned by Trinity College, Cambridge, and a popular outlet retail park on the outskirts of the town. By the beginning of the new millennium, the Channel Tunnel had transformed the economy of Kent. Ashford is closer to Paris and Brussels than it is to Manchester and Sheffield, both in time and distance. By the beginning of this century, it was in a position to be part of a truly international economy.

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Transport policy was only one of the ways in which the EU increasingly came to shape the geography of the British Isles in the 1990s. It was a key factor in the creation of the new administrative regions of Britain in 1999. At the same time, a number of British local authorities opened offices in Brussels for lobbying purposes. The enthusiasm the Scottish National Party discovered in the late 1980s for the supposed benefits that would result from independence in Europe may help to explain its subsequent revival. The European connection has proved less welcome in other quarters. Fishermen, particularly in Cornwall and on the East coast of England, have felt themselves the victims of the Common Fisheries Policy quota system. A strong sense of Euroscepticism developed in England in particular, fuelled by a mixture of concerns about sovereignty and economic policy. Nevertheless, links with Europe have been growing, whether via the Channel Tunnel, or the connections between the French and British electricity grids, or airline policy, as have the number of policy decisions shaped by the EU. This pace of change quickened as the result of the 1987 Single European Act, as it became clear that the UK was becoming increasingly integrated with the European continent.

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By the late 1990s, another indispensible marker of British identity, the monarchy, began to look tired, under strain of being simultaneously a ceremonial and familial institution. Ever since the abdication of Edward VIII in 1936, which suddenly propelled the ten year-old Princess Elizabeth into the spotlight as the heir apparent, the membership of this institution was thought to require standards of personal behaviour well above the norm of late twentieth century expectations. Just as the monarchy had gained from its marriages, especially that resulting from the fairy tale romance of the Prince of Wales and Lady Diana Spencer in 1981, whose wedding at St Paul’s in 1981 had a world-wide audience of at least eight hundred million viewers, so it lost commensurately from the failure of those unions. The year 1992, referred to by the Queen as her annus horriblis, saw not just the separations of Charles and Diana (the Wales) as well as Andrew and Sarah (the Yorks), but also a major fire at Windsor Castle in November. When it was announced that the Crown would only pay for the replacement and repair of items in the royal private collection, and that repairs to the fabric would therefore come from the tax-paying public, a serious debate began about the state of the monarchy’s finances. In a poll, eight out of ten people asked thought the Queen should pay taxes on her private income, hitherto exempt. A year later, Buckingham Palace was opened to the public tours for the first time and the Crown did agree to pay taxes. In 1994 the royal yacht Britannia, the emblem of the queen’s global presence, was decommissioned.

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Above: A sea of flowers laid in tribute to Diana, Princess of Wales, outside Kensington Palace, London, August 1997

The most difficult moment came in August 1997, when Princess Diana was killed in a car accident in Paris. Royal protocol dictates that the royal standard should be flown above Buckingham Palace when the Queen is in residence. The Union Flag is only flown above the royal palaces and other government and public buildings on certain special days, such as the Princess Royal’s birthday, 15 August. Since it was holiday time for the Royal family, they were away from London, so there were no flags flying. The Queen, as the only person who could authorise an exception to these age-old customs, received criticism for not flying the union flag at half-mast in order to fulfill the deep need of a grief-stricken public. They are only flown at half-mast on the announcement of the death of a monarch until after the funeral, and on the day of the funeral only for other members of the royal family. Although Her Majesty meant no disrespect to her estranged daughter-in-law, the Crown lives and dies by such symbolic moments. The immense outpouring of public emotion in the days and weeks that followed was very different from the more conventional but no less heartfelt mourning of the Queen and her immediate family. The crisis was rescued by a television speech she made which was both informal and sincere in its expression of personal sorrow, adding to the tidal wave that swept over the whole country, for England’s rose, or the People’s Princess of Wales.

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The monarchy was fully restored to popularity by the Millennium festivities, at which the Queen watched dancers from the Notting Hill carnival under the ill-fated Dome, and especially by the Golden Jubilee celebrations of 2002, which continued the newly struck royal mood of greater informality. Brian May, the lead guitarist of the rock-band Queen began the pop concert at Buckingham Palace by playing his instrumental version of God Save the Queen from the roof-top overlooking the Mall. Modern Britannia seemed at last to be at ease with its identity within a multi-national, multi-ethnic, United Kingdom, in all its mongrel glory.

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Above: Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in 2001, aged 75. She has already (in 2014) reigned for another thirteen years,

and celebrated her Diamond Jubilee in 2012.

Sources:

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

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

Robert McCrum, William Cran & Robert MacNeil (1987), The Story of English. London: Penguin Books.

John Haywood & Simon Hall, et.al. (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British and Irish History. London: Penguin Books.

Safder Alladina, Viv Edwards & Elizabeth Muir (1991), Multilingualism in the British Isles. Harlow: Longman (Linguistics).

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