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‘Socialism’ and the Rise of the British Labour Party, 1901-1931: Views from Above and Below; Part Two, 1921-29.   Leave a comment

The Decline of the Liberals & Break-up of the Coalition:

002By the end of 1922, the Liberal Party had been relegated to the position of a minor party. Despite the promises of David Lloyd George (right) to provide ‘homes fit for heroes to live in’, it had been slow to develop the effective policies needed for dealing with the economic and social problems created by the First World War; promises based on moralistic liberal ideals were not enough. But there were many among their Coalition partners, the Conservatives, who were more concerned to keep the threat from Labour at bay than to jettison Lloyd George as their popular and charismatic Prime Minister.

The policies of the Coalition government, the alleged sale of honours by Lloyd George, the Irish treaties of 1920 and 1921, the failures of the international conferences at Cannes and Genoa, and the Chanak incident of 1922 exacerbated the withdrawal of backbench Conservative support for the Coalition Government. That dissatisfaction came to a head for the Tories in October 1922 when Austen Chamberlain and Stanley Baldwin argued the cases for and against continuing the Coalition. Baldwin’s victory and the fall of the Coalition government led to Lloyd George and his Liberals being without positive programmes. The disastrous 1922 election was followed by a further fusion between the two wings of the Liberal Party and they revived in the 1923 General Election. But this was a short-lived triumph and in the 1924 election, the Liberals slumped to forty MPs, with less than eighteen per cent of the total vote. After this, the Liberals were a spent force in British politics.

At the famous meeting of ‘back-bench’ Conservative MPs at the Carlton Club on 19 October 1922, Chamberlain debated with Stanley Baldwin the future direction of their party in the following terms:

The real issue is not between Liberals and Conservatives. It is not between the old Liberal policy and the old Conservative policy. It is between those who stand for individual freedom and those who are for the socialisation of the State; those who stand for free industry and those who stand for nationalisation, with all its controls and inefficiencies. 

Stanley Baldwin, acknowledging that Lloyd George was a dynamic force, a remarkable personality, but one which had already smashed the PM’s own party to pieces, and would go on to do the same to the Tory Party if they let it. Baldwin’s victory over Chamberlain and the fall of the Coalition left Lloyd George and his Liberals without partners and without positive programmes of their own. Lloyd George had become an electoral liability both the Conservatives and, as it soon turned out, even the Liberals could do without.

In the British political and electoral system, there was no place for two parties of the Right or two parties of the Left. This was the Liberal dilemma. By 1924, the Liberal-Conservative see-saw had been replaced by a fast-spinning roundabout of alternate governments of the Labour and Conservative parties on which there was little opportunity for the Liberals to jump on board. To change the metaphor completely, they now found themselves caught between the Devil and the deep blue sea. Where, then, did the Liberal support go? Liberal ideals were no longer as relevant to the twentieth century as they had been in Victorian and Edwardian times. In fact, both the Labour and Conservative parties benefited from the Liberal decline. Given that Conservative-led governments dominated Britain for all but three years of the 1918-39 period, the Liberal decline perhaps helped the Right rather than the Left. Besides which, the logic of the ‘adversarial’ British political system favoured a dominant two-party system rather than a multi-party governmental structure. Yet even the emergence of a working-class party with an overtly Socialist platform could not alter the fundamentals of a parliamentary politics based on the twin pillars of finding consensus and supporting capitalism. Despite his party’s commitment to Socialism, Ramsay MacDonald accepted the logic of this situation.

History has not been kind to the memories of either Stanley Baldwin or Ramsay MacDonald who dominated politics between 1922 and 1937. The first is still seen as the Prime Minister who thwarted both the General Strike and the rule of Edward VIII. The latter is seen, especially in his own party, as the great betrayer who chose to form a National Government in 1931, resulting in the split in that party. Here, I am concerned with the causes of that split and the motives for MacDonald’s actions. A further article will concern itself with the consequences of those actions and the split resulting in Labour’s biggest electoral disaster to date in 1935. In his book, published in 1968, The Downfall of the Liberal Party, 1914-1935, T. Wilson has pointed out the need for historians to take a long view of Liberal decline, going back to the 1880s and as far forward as 1945. In particular, he points to the fact that, in the three decades following 1914, the Conservatives held office almost continuously, with only two minor interruptions by Labour minority governments. In part, he suggested, this was the consequence in the overall decline of ‘the left’ in general, by which he seems to have meant the ‘left-liberals’ rather than simply the Socialists:

The left parties suffered from the loss of buoyancy and self-confidence which followed from Britain’s decline as a world power and the experiences of the First World War, as well as from the twin phenomena of economic growth and economic crisis which ran parallel after 1914. The resultant urge to play safe proved largely to the advantage of the Conservatives. So did the decline in ‘idealism’. … Before 1914 the Liberal and Labour parties so managed their electoral affairs that between them they derived the maximum advantage from votes cast against the Conservatives. After 1914 this became impossible. During the First World War Labour became convinced – and the decrepit state of Liberalism even by 1918 deemed to justify this conviction – that the Liberal Party would soon be extinguished altogether and that Labour would appropriate its entire following. … By concentrating on destroying the Liberals, Labour was ensuring its own victory “in the long run”, even though in the short run the Conservatives benefited. … 

Certainly, from 1918 to 1939 British politics was dominated by the Conservative Party. Either as a dominant member of a Coalition or National government or as a majority government, the Conservative Party retained hegemony over the system.

Structural Decline – The State of the ‘Staple’ Industries:

The problems which British politicians faced in the inter-war period were primarily of an economic nature. British industry was structurally weak and uncompetitive. It was therefore not surprising that two areas were of particular concern to politicians: first, the state of the staple industry, especially coal with its immense workforce; and secondly, the question of unemployment benefits and allowances.

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Above: A boy working underground with his pity pony. In 1921, the school-leaving age was fourteen, though many left in the spring before their fourteenth birthday and boys were legally allowed to work underground in mines at this age, entering the most dangerous industrial occupation in the country.

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Pictures can create an impression of mining life but they cannot convey the horrific danger of the work, and even the statistics elude the experience. Every five hours a miner was killed and every ten minutes five more were maimed. Every working day, 850 suffered some kind of serious injury. In the three years, 1922-24, nearly six hundred thousand were injured badly enough to be off work for seven days or more. No records were kept of those of work for fewer than seven days. Combined with work that was physically destructive over a longer period, producing diseases such as pneumoconiosis and silicosis were working conditions that are virtually indescribable and company-owned housing that was some of the worst in Britain. The reward for the daily risk to health and life varied from eight to ten shillings and ninepence a day according to the ‘district’ from eight shillings and fivepence a day in South Staffordshire to ten shillings and ninepence in South Wales. That was the wage the owners insisted on cutting and the toil they insisted on lengthening. The mine-owners were joined together in a powerful employers’ organisation known as the Mining Association. They represented owners like Lord Londonderry, the Duke of Northumberland and Lord Gainford, men whose interests extended to banking and press proprietorship. They also spoke for big landowners like the Duke of Hamilton and Lord Bate who drew royalties on every shovelful of coal hacked from beneath their lands, amounting to more than a hundred thousand pounds a year.

In 1915, the MFGB had formed a ‘Triple Industrial Alliance’ with the National Union of Railwaymen and the Transport Workers’ Federation. Its joint executive could order combined action to defend any of the three unions involved in a dispute. However, the Alliance ended on 15 April 1921 which became known as ‘Black Friday’. The NUR, the Transport Workers’ Federation, the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Fireman called off their strike, leaving the Miners to fight on. All along the Miners had said they were prepared to make a temporary arrangement about wages, provided that the principle of a National Wages Board was conceded. On the eve of ‘Black Friday’, the Miners’ leader, Frank Hodges suggested that they would be prepared to accept a temporary wage arrangement, provided it did not prejudice the ultimate decision about the NWB, thus postponing the question of the Board until after the negotiations. It was this adjustment that stopped the strike and ended the Alliance. The Daily Herald, very much the ‘mouthpiece’ for Labour, reported the following morning:

Yesterday was the heaviest defeat that has befallen the Labour Movement within the memory of man.

It is no use trying to minimise it. It is no use trying to pretend it is other than it is.We on this paper have said throughout that if the organised workers would stand together they would win. They have not stood together, and they have been broken. It is no use for anyone to criticise anyone else or to pretend that he himself would have done better than those have done who have borne the heaviest responsibility. …

The owners and the Government have delivered a smashing frontal attack upon the workers’ standard of life. They have resolved that the workers shall starve, and the workers have not been sufficiently united to stand up to that attack.

The Triple Alliance, the Trades Union Congress, the General Staff, have all failed to function. We must start afresh  and get a machine that will function.

… We may be beaten temporarily; it will be our own fault if we are not very soon victorious. Sectionalism is the waekness of the movement. It must be given up. Everybody must come back to fight undiscouraged, unhumiliated, more determined than ever for self-sacrifice, for hard-work, and for solidarity. … We must concentrate on the Cause.

The thing we are fighting for is much too big to be beaten by Mr Lloyd George or by anything except betrayal in our own ranks and in our own hearts. 

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Already by 1922, forty-three per cent of Jarrow’s employable persons were out of work, whilst forty-seven per cent in Brynmawr and sixty per cent in Hartlepool were in the same condition. By contrast with the unforgiving bitterness of class war across mainland Europe, however, social divisions in Britain were mitigated by four main ‘cultural’ factors; a common ‘heritage’; reverence for the monarchy; a common religion, albeit divided between Anglican, Nonconformist and Catholic denominations; an instinctive enjoyment of sport and a shared sense of humour. All four of these factors were evident in the class-based conflicts of 1919-26. In March 1922, the Daily News reported that an ex-soldier of the Royal Field Artillery was living with his wife and four children in London under a patchwork shack of tarpaulins, old army groundsheets and bits of tin and canvas. He told the reporter:

If they’d told in France that I should come back to this I wouldn’t have believed it. Sometimes I wished to God the Germans had knocked me out.

In the House of Commons in June 1923, the ILP MP James (‘Jimmy’) Maxwell used his ‘privileges’ to accuse the Baldwin government and industrialists of ‘murder’:

In the interests of economy they condemned hundreds of children to death, and I call it murder … It is a fearful thing for any man to have on his soul – a cold, callous, deliberate crime in order to save money. We are prepared to destroy children in the great interest of dividends. We put children out in the front of the firing line.

Baldwin & MacDonald arrive ‘centre-stage’:

In attempting to remedy the existing state of affairs, Baldwin set himself a dual-task. In the first place, he had to lead the Conservatives to some imaginative understanding of the situation which had called a Labour Party into being and to convince them that their survival depended on finding a better practical solution to the problems than Labour’s. Secondly, he sought to convince potential Labour voters that not all Conservatives were blood-sucking capitalists, that humanity and idealism were not the exclusive prerogatives of left-wing thinkers. For the cartoonists and the and the public at large, there was Baldwin’s carefully cultivated image of the bowler hat and the pipe, Sunday walks in the Worcestershire countryside which ended in the contemplation of his pigs; ‘Squire Baldwin’ appeared, according to William McElwee, to be simple, straightforward, homely and above all trustworthy. MacDonald had the same task in reverse. He had to convince the nation that Labour was a responsible party, perfectly competent to take over the reins of government, and resolved to achieve in its programme of reforms within the framework of the constitution. He had also to persuade Labour itself that it was in and through Parliament that social progress could best be achieved; that the existing constitutional structure was not designed to shore up capitalism and preserve personal privilege, but was available for any party to take hold of and will the means according to its declared ends, provided it could ensure a democratically elected majority.

Both Baldwin and MacDonald were enigmatic figures to contemporaries and still are today. On Baldwin, one contemporary commented in 1926 that …

If on the memorable afternoon of August 3, 1914, anyone, looking down on the crowded benches of the House of Commons, had sought to pick out the man who would be at the helm when the storm that was about to engulf Europe was over he would not have given a thought to the member for Bewdley. … He passed for a typical backbencher, who voted as he was expected to vote and went home to dinner. A plain, undemonstrative Englishman, prosperous and unambitious, with a pleasant, humorous face, bright and rather bubolic colouring, walking with a quick, long stride that suggested one accustomed to tramping much over ploughed fields with a gun under his arm, and smoking a pipe with unremitting enjoyment. …

McElwee considers their personality traits in his book, Britain’s Locust Years, in which he tries to indicate the immensity of the problem facing these problems, characterising it as years of plenty followed by years of shortage. He raises the important question of judgement and argues that the historian must reach a ‘truer perspective’ in appreciating that the problems facing the country in 1925 were very different from those which had to be confronted in 1935 and 1945. Yet the picture still emerges in the national mind of…

Baldwin personified by his pipe and pigs and MacDonald by his vanity, ambition and betrayal.

This popular picture, he suggests, fails to take into account the contribution each made to his own party. Both men could claim that during their periods in office they were compelled to act in ‘the national interest’. The events of 1926, in the case of Baldwin, and 1931, in the case of MacDonald, and their actions in them, could both be justified on these grounds alongside the judgements they made. Historians’ interpretations of these judgements must depend first on the available evidence and secondly on their analysis and treatment of this evidence-based on non-partisan criteria. Only then can they adduce true motives. As for the Liberals, the disastrous 1922 election was followed by a re-fusion between the two wings of the Liberal Party and they revived their fortunes somewhat in the 1923 General Election. But this was a short-lived recovery and in the 1924 election, they slumped to forty MPs, with only 17.6 per cent of the total vote. Their decline after 1924 can be seen in the electoral statistics below:

Table I: General Election Results, 1918-1929.

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Table II: Liberals and the General Elections, 1918-1929.

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Writing in Certain People of Importance in 1926, A. G. Gardiner suggested that the emergence of Mr Baldwin would furnish the historian with an attractive theme. … The ‘Diehards’, following the fateful Carlton Club Meeting, at which he effectively broke up the Coalition, felt that at last, they had found a hero. But in November 1923 Stanley Baldwin’s Conservative Government fell. In 1923, in the middle of the election campaign, a Cabinet colleague was asked to explain the true inwardness of his leader’s sudden and inexplicable plunge into Protection, he replied: Baldwin turned the tap on and then found that he could not turn it off. Gardiner commented by extending this metaphor:

He is always turning taps on and then found that he does not know how to stop them. And when the bath overflows outside, lights his pipe, and rejoices that he has such a fine head of water on his premises. …

The Tory’s revival of ‘Protectionism’ was an attempt to stem the tide of support for Labour by protecting the new engineering jobs which were growing rapidly in the new industrial areas of the Midlands, which were meeting the demand for new electrical goods in the home market. My own grandparents, a miner and silk-weaver campaigning for Labour from the front room of their new semi-detached house in Coventry, which served as the Party’s constituency office, used to sing the following campaign song decades later, to the tune of ‘Men of Harlech’:

Voters all of Aberavon!

Wisdom show in this election,

Don’t be misled by Protection,

Ramsay is yer man.

Ramsay, Ramsay! Shout it!

Don’t be shy about it!

On then comrades, on to glory!

It shall be told in song and story,

How we beat both Lib and Tory!

Ramsay is yer man!

In the following month’s general election (the full results of which are shown in the statistics in Table I above), the Labour Party won 191 seats to the Conservatives’ 258 and the Liberals’ 158; Margaret Bondfield was elected in Northampton with a majority of 4,306 over her Conservative opponent. She had been elected to the TUC Council in 1918 and became its chairman in 1923, shortly before she was first elected to parliament.  In an outburst of local celebration her supporters, whom she described as “nearly crazy with joy”, paraded her around the town in a charabanc. She was one of the first three women—Susan Lawrence and Dorothy Jewson (pictured in the group photo below) were the others—to be elected as Labour MPs. With no party in possession of a parliamentary majority, the make-up of the next government was in doubt for some weeks until Parliament returned after the Christmas ‘recess’.

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In the short-lived minority Labour government of 1924, Margaret Bondfield, seen above as Chairman of the TUC, served as parliamentary secretary in the Ministry of Labour. 

The First Labour Government:

The Liberal Party’s decision not to enter a coalition with the Conservatives, and Baldwin’s unwillingness to govern without a majority, led to Ramsay MacDonald’s first minority Labour government which took office in January 1924.

The Women MPs elected to Parliament in 1923 (three were Labour)

Working-class expectations of the First Labour government were soaring high, despite its ‘absolute’ minority status and the lack of experience of its cabinet ministers. Beatrice Webb wrote in her diaries (1924-32) for 8th January:

I had hoped to have the time and the brains to give some account of the birth of the Labour Cabinet. There was a pre-natal scene – the Embryo Cabinet – in JRM’s room on Monday afternoon immediately after the defeat of the Government when the whole of the prospective Ministers were summoned to meet the future PM (who) … did not arrive until half an hour after the time – so they all chatted and introduced themselves to each other. … On Tuesday (in the first week of January), JRM submitted to the King the twenty members of the Cabinet and there was a formal meeting at 10 Downing Street that afternoon of the Ministers designate. Haldane gave useful advice about procedure: Wheatley and Tom Shaw orated somewhat, but for the most part the members were silent, and what remarks were made were businesslike. The consultation concerned the PM’s statement to Parliament. …

On Wednesday the twenty Ministers designate, in their best suits … went to Buckingham Palace to be sworn in; having been previously drilled by Hankey. Four of them came back to our weekly MP’s lunch to to meet the Swedish Minister – a great pal of ours. Uncle Arthur (Henderson) was bursting with childish joy over his H. O. seals in the red leather box which he handed round the company; Sidney was chuckling over a hitch in the solemn ceremony in which he had been right and Hankey wrong; they were all laughing over Wheatley – the revolutionary – going down on both knees and actually kissing the King’s hand; and C. P. Trevelyan was remarking that the King seemed quite incapable of saying two words to his new ministers: ‘he went through the ceremony like an automation!’

J. R. Clynes, the ex-mill-hand, Minister in the Labour Government, recalled their sense of being ‘out of place’ at the Palace:

As we stood waiting for His Majesty, amid the gold and crimson of the Palace, I could not help marvelling at the strange turn of Fortune’s wheel, which had brought MacDonald, the starveling clerk, Thomas the engine-driver, Henderson the foundry labourer and Clynes, the mill-hand to the pinnacle.

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The pictures and captions above and elsewhere in this article are taken from ‘These Tremendous Years, 1918-38’, published c.1939, a ‘picture-post’ -style publication. What is interesting about this report is its references to the King’s attitude, which contrasts with that reported by Beatrice Webb, and to the Labour Ministers as ‘the Socialists’.

According to Lansbury’s biographer, Margaret Bondfield turned down the offer of a cabinet post; instead, she became parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Labour, Tom Shaw. This appointment meant that she had to give up the TUC Council chair; her decision to do so, immediately after becoming the first woman to achieve this honour, generated some criticism from other trade unionists. She later described her first months in government as “a strange adventure”. The difficulties of the economic situation would have created problems for the most experienced of governments, and the fledgeling Labour administration was quickly in difficulties. Bondfield spent much of her time abroad; in the autumn she travelled to Canada as the head of a delegation examining the problems of British immigrants, especially as related to the welfare of young children. When she returned to Britain in early October 1924, she found her government already in its final throes. On 8 October MacDonald resigned after losing a confidence vote in the House of Commons. Labour’s chances of victory in the ensuing general election were fatally compromised by the controversy surrounding the so-called Zinoviev letter, a missive purportedly sent by Grigory Zinoviev, president of the Communist International, which called on Britain’s Socialists to prepare for violent revolution:

EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE, THIRD COMMUNIST

INTERNATIONAL PRESIDIUM.

MOSCOW

September 15th 1924

To the Central Committee, British Communist Party.

DEAR COMRADES,

The time is approaching for the Parliament of England to consider the Treaty concluded between the Governments of Great Britain and the SSSR for the purpose of ratification. The fierce campaign raised by the British bourgeoisie around the question shows that the majority of the same … (is) against the Treaty. 

It is indispensible to stir up the masses of the British proletariat, to bring into movement the army of unemployed proletarians. … It is imperative that the Labour Party sympathising with the Treaty should bring increased pressure to bear upon the Government and Parliament any circles in favour of ratification …

… A settlement of relations between the two countries will assist in the revolutionising of the international and British Proletariat not less than a successful rising in any of the working districts of England, as the establishment of close contact between the British and Russian proletariat, … will make it possible for us to extend and develop the propaganda and ideals of Leninism in England and the Colonies. …

From your last report it is evident that agitation propaganda in the Army is weak, in the Navy a very little better … it would be desirable to have cells in all the units of troops, particularly among those those quartered in the large centres of the Country, and also among factories working on munitions and at military store depots. …

With Communist greetings,

ZINOVIEV

President of the Presidium of the I.K.K.I.

McMANUS

Member of the Presidium

KUUSINEN

Secretary

Pictured right: The Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald, depicted in a hostile Punch cartoon. The luggage label, marked “Petrograd”, links him to Russia and communism.

The letter, published four days before polling day, generated a “Red Scare” that led to a significant swing of voters to the right, ensuring a massive Tory victory (Table I).

Margaret Bondfield lost her seat in Northampton by 971 votes. The scare demonstrated the vulnerability of the Labour Party to accusations of Communist influence and infiltration.

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The Conservatives & the Coal Crisis – Class War?

Baldwin (pictured on the left above) and his Tories were duly returned to power, including Winston Churchill as Chancellor of the Exchequer. It was Churchill’s decision in 1925 to return Britain to the Gold Standard, abandoned in 1914, together with his hard-line anti-unionism displayed during the General Strike, for which his second period in office is best remembered. The decision was a monetary disaster that hit the lowest paid hardest since it devalued wages dramatically. Despite being flatly warned by the Cambridge economist Hubert Henderson that a return to gold… cannot be achieved without terrible risk of renewed trade depression and serious aggravation and of unemployment, it was actually Baldwin who told Churchill that it was the Government’s decision to do so. Churchill decided to go along with Baldwin and the Bank of England, which restored its authority over the treasury by the change. The effect of the return to the Gold Standard in 1926, as predicted by Keynes and other economists, was to make the goods and services of the most labour-intensive industries even less competitive in export markets. Prices and the numbers out of work shot up, and wages fell. In the worst-affected industries, like coal-mining and shipbuilding, unemployment was already approaching thirty per cent. In some places in the North, it reached nearly half the insured workforce. In the picture on the right above, miners are anxiously reading the news about the ‘Coal Crisis’.

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Beatrice Webb first met the ‘Billy Sunday’ of the Labour Movement, as Cook was nicknamed, with George Lansbury. He was the son of a soldier, born and brought up in the barracks, then a farm-boy in Somerset when he migrated, like many others, to the booming South Wales coalfield before the First World War, a fact which was continually referred to by the Welsh-speaking Liberal élite in the Social Service movement. He had, however, passed through a fervent religious stage at the time of the great Welsh Revival, which he came out of by coming under the influence of the ‘Marxist’ Central Labour College and Noah Ablett, whom he helped to write The Miners’ Next Step, a Syndicalist programme for workers’ control of the coal industry, published in 1912. Graduating into Trade Union politics as a conscientious objector and avowed admirer of Lenin’s, he retained the look of the West country agricultural labour, with china-blue eyes and lanky yellow hair, rather than that of the ‘old Welsh collier’ so admired by the Liberals. For Webb, however, Cook was altogether a man you watch with a certain curiosity, though to her husband, Sidney, who was on the Labour Party Executive, he was rude and unpleasing in manner. However, Beatrice also judged that…

It is clear that he has no intellect and not much intelligence … an inspired idiot, drunk with his own words, dominated by his own slogans. I doubt whether he knows what he is going to say or what he has just said. It is tragic to think that this inspired idiot, coupled with poor old Herbert Smith, with his senile obstinacy, are the dominating figures in so great and powerful an organisation as the Miners’ Federation.

Walter Citrine, the TUC General Secretary in 1926, had a similarly mixed view of Cook’s speaking abilities:

In speaking, whether in private or public, he never seemed to finish his sentences. His brain raced ahead of his words. He would start out to demonstrate something or other in a logical way … but almost immediately some thought came into his mind and he completely forgot all about (his main theme) and never returned to it. He was extremely emotional and even in private conversation I have seen tears in his eyes.

The mine owners’ response to the crisis, made worse by the fact that the German minefields were back in production, was to demand wage cuts and extensions to working hours. Worried about the real possibility of a general strike, based on the Triple Alliance between the miners, dockers and railwaymen, Baldwin bribed the owners with government subsidies to postpone action until a royal commission could report on the overall problems of the industry. However, when the Samuel Commission reported in March 1926, its first of seven recommendations was a cut in wages. The response of the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain, voiced by their militant national secretary, A. J. Cook, was to set out the miner’s case in emotive terms:

Our case is simple. We ask for safety and economic security. Today up and down the coalfields the miner and his family are faced with sheer starvation. He is desperate. He will not, he cannot stand present conditions much longer. He would be a traitor to his wife and children if he did. Until he is given safety in mines, adequate compensation, hours of labour that do not make him a mere coal-getting medium, and decent living conditions, there can be no peace in the British coalfields.

Lord Birkenhead said that he thought the miners’ leaders the stupidest men he had ever met until he met the mine owners. They proved him right by locking the miners out of the pits at midnight on 30 April. The Mining Association, strongly supported by Baldwin and Churchill, stated that the mines would be closed to all those who did not accept the new conditions from 2 May 1926. The message from the owners was clear; they refused to meet with the miners’ representatives and declared that they would never again submit to national agreements but would insist on district agreements to break the power and unity of the MFGB and force down the living standards of the miners to an even lower level. The smallest reduction would be imposed on mine labourers in Scotland, eightpence farthing a day, the largest on hewers in Durham, three shillings and eightpence a day. Cook responded by declaring:

We are going to be slaves no longer and our men will starve before they accept a reduction in wages.

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Above: Women and children queue outside the soup kitchen in Rotherham, Yorkshire, during the miners’ lock-out in 1926.

The Nine Days of the General Strike:

The following day, Saturday 1 May, the TUC special Conference of Executive Committees met in London and voted to call a General Strike in support of the miners by 3,653,527 votes to just under fifty thousand. As early as 26 February, the TUC had reiterated support for the miners, declaring there was to be no reduction in wages, no increase in working hours, and no interference with the principle of national agreements. In the face of the impending lockout, the special Conference had begun meeting at Farringdon Street on 29 April and continued in session until 1 May. At this conference, in a committed and passionate speech, Bevin said of the decision to strike in support of the miners …

… if every penny goes, if every asset goes, history will ultimately write up that it was a magnificent generation that was prepared to do it rather than see the miners driven down like slaves. 

The TUC Memorandum called for the following trades to cease work as an when required by the General Council:

Transport, … Printing Trades including the Press, … Productive Industries, Iron and Steel, Metal, and Heavy Chemical, … Building Trade, … Electricity and Gas,  … Sanitary Services, … but … With regard to hospitals, clinics, convalescent homes, sanatoria, infant welfare centres, maternity homes, nursing homes, schools … affiliated Unions (were) to take every opportunity to ensure that food, milk, medical and surgical supplies shall be efficiently provided. Also, there was to be no interference in regard to … the distribution of milk and food to the whole of the population.

Telegrams were sent out on 3 May and on the 4th more than three million workers came out on strike. The General Council issued a further statement that evening, again placing the responsibility for the ‘national crisis’ on the shoulders of the Government. It went on to try to reassure the general population of its good intentions in calling the strike:

With the people the trade unions have no quarrel. On the contrary, the unions are fighting to maintain the standard of life of the great mass of people. 

The trade unions have not entered upon this struggle without counting the cost. They are assured that the trade unionists of the country, realising the justice of the cause they are called upon to support, will stand loyally by their elected leaders until the victory and an honourable peace has been won.

The need now is for loyalty, steadfastness and unity.

The General Council of the Trade Union Congress appeals to the workers to follow the instructions that have been issued by their union leaders.

Let none be disturbed by rumours or driven by panic to betray the cause.

Violence and disorder must be everywhere avoided no matter what the cause.

Stand firm and we shall win.

On the 4th, The Daily Herald published the following editorial backing the Strike:

The miners are locked out to enforce reductions of wages and an increase in hours. The Government stands behind the mineowners. It has rebuffed the Trade Union Movement’s every effort to pave the way to an honourable peace.

The renewed conversations begun on Saturday were ended abruptly in the early hours of yesterday morning, with an ultimatum from the Cabinet. Despite this, the whole Labour Movement, including the miners’ leaders, continued its efforts yesterday.

But unless a last minute change of front by the Government takes place during the night the country will today be forced, owing to the action of the Government, into an industrial struggle bigger than this country has yet seen.

In the Commons Mr Baldwin showed no sign of any receding from his attitude that negotiations could not be entered into if the General Strike order stood and unless reductions were accepted before negotiations opened.

In reply Mr J. H. Thomas declared that the responsibility for the deadlock lay with the Government and the owners, and that the Labour Movement was bound in honour to support the miners in the attacks on their standard of life.

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In the following eight days, it was left to local trades unionists to form Councils of Action to control the movement of goods, disseminate information to counter government propaganda, to arrange strike payments and to organise demonstrations and activities in support of the strike. The scene in the photo above gives a strong impression of the life of a northern mining community during the strike, in which a local agitator harangues his audience, men and children in clogs, with flat caps and pigeon baskets. Most of the photographs of 1926 taken by trades unionists and Labour activists do not show the strike itself but reveal aspects of the long lone fight of the miners to survive the lock-out. We know from the written and oral sources that the nine days in May were sunny and warm across much of the country, perfect for outside communal activities. The Cardiff Strike Committee issued the following advice:

Keep smiling! Refuse to be provoked. Get into your garden. Look after the wife and kiddies. If you have not got a garden, get into the country, the parks and the playgrounds.

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At Methil, in Scotland, the trades unionists reacted to the call in a highly organised manner, the Trades and Labour Council forming itself into a Council of Action with sub-committees for food and transport, information and propaganda and mobilising three cars, one hundred motorcycles and countless bicycles for its courier service. Speakers were sent out in threes, a miner, a railwayman and a docker to emphasise the spirit of unity with the miners. Later in the strike, the Council of Action added an entertainments committee and, more seriously, a Workers’ Defence Corps after some savage baton charges by the police upon the pickets. The snapshots are from Methil, one showing miners and their families waiting to hear speeches from local leaders, one man holding a bugle used to summon people from their homes. The lower photo shows three pickets arrested during disturbances at Muiredge. Deploying a sense of humour reminiscent of that of the class-conscious ‘Tommies’ in the trenches, the Kensington strike bulletin greeted Sir John Simon’s pronouncement on the legality of the Strike with the following sardonic comment:

Sir John Simon says the General Strike is illegal under an Act passed by William the Conqueror  in 1066. All strikers are liable to be interned in Wormwood Scrubs. The three million strikers are advised to keep in hiding, preferably in the park behind Bangor Street, where they will not be discovered.

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Throughout the country, those called upon by the TUC to stop work did so with enthusiasm and solidarity. The photograph of trades unionists marching through ‘well-heeled’ Leamington Spa (above) is typical of thousands of similar popular demonstrations of solidarity that took place throughout Britain. Though the establishment in general and Winston Churchill, in particular, feared revolution, the march of building workers and railwaymen has the air of a nineteenth-century trade union procession, like those led by Joseph Arch in the surrounding Warwickshire countryside, the carpenters and joiners parading examples of their work, window sashes and door frames, through the streets on the back of a horse-drawn wagon. The figure in the foreground, marked with an x, is E Horley, a member of the Bricklayers’ Union. It was a scene repeated in a thousand towns as meetings were held, trade union news sheets were printed daily, and Councils of Action controlled the movement of supplies, organised pickets (Bolton organised 2,280 pickets in two days) and provided entertainment and speakers.

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Government plans to cope with the strike of the ‘Triple Alliance’ or for a general strike had originated in 1919. The TUC seemed unaware of the government plans to distribute supplies by road though Lloyd George claimed that Ramsay MacDonald was aware of it and even prepared to make use of it during 1924. The organisation had evolved steadily during a period of continued industrial arrest and was accelerated after ‘Red Friday’ in 1925 so that the government was not only ready to take on the miners but was looking forward to dealing the unions a massive blow. Private support for a strikebreaking force came from a body calling itself the ‘Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies’ (OMS) under ‘top brass’ military leadership. The professional classes hastened to enrol, especially those with military commissions and experience, alongside industrialists.

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Whilst the popular image of the Strike is one of the ‘Oxbridge’ undergraduates driving buses, the reality was that most of the strike-breakers were as working-class as the strikers. Churchill, however, mobilised resources as if he were fighting a war. Troops delivered food supplies; he set up the British Gazette and ran it as a government propaganda sheet (above), with more soldiers guarding the printing presses.

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The armed forces were strategically stationed, armoured cars and tanks brought out for guard and escort duties. The Riot Act was read to the troops and even the artillerymen were given bayonet drill. Both food deliveries and Gazette deliveries were sometimes accompanied by tanks. Attempts to press Lord Reith’s BBC, which had begun broadcasting in 1922, to put out government bulletins, were defiantly resisted, a turning point in the fight for the corporation’s political independence.

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The photograph above shows troops carrying an ammunition box into their temporary quarters at the Tower of London, where the contents of London’s gunshops were also stored during the strike.

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Since 1925, the number of special constables had been increased from 98,000 to 226,000 and a special reserve was also created. This numbered fifty thousand during the strike by ‘reliable’ volunteers from the universities, the professions and by retired army officers who happily donned the blue and white armband over cricket sweaters and drew their helmets from the government stores. The photo above shows a group of swaggering polo-playing ex-officers wielding yard-long clubs and flourishing whips replete with jodhpurs. They cantered around Hyde Park in military formation. The class divisions were clearly drawn and while for the most part, the volunteers saw it as answering a patriotic call, some talked of ‘teaching the blighters a lesson’.

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In a strike remarkable for a lack of violence, given all the ingredients for near civil war, it was the specials who were involved in some of the most brutal incidents during the nine days. The most dramatic incident was the semi-accidental derailment of The Flying Scotsman by a group of miners from Cramlington Lodge, but their four-hundred-yard warning enabled the engine to slow to twenty m.p.h. before it toppled off the section where they had removed a rail. Consequently, no-one was hurt, but a police investigation led to one of the miners turning King’s Evidence and his nine ‘comrades’ were arrested and given sentences of four, six and eight year’s penal servitude. On the other side, mounted specials supported the Black and Tans in an unprovoked attack on a mixed crowd in Lewes Road, Brighton, while at Bridgeton attacks by the specials on unoffending citizens led to an official protest by the Glasgow Town Council Labour Group. It was also the specials who took part in raids on trade union offices and arrested workers for selling strike bulletins; for the miners, it was a fight for survival, for the university students and their middle-aged fathers in search of glory, it was all ‘jolly good fun’.

At the height of the strike, with messages of support pouring into the TUC, the number of strikers growing and spirits high, the strike was suddenly brought to an end on 12 May. At first, trade union officials announced it as a victory, for example at a mass meeting at Gravesend. With the strike solid and growing daily and trades unions in control of many areas, its ending was similarly interpreted in hundreds of cities, towns and villages throughout the country. As the truth slowly became known, the news was received with shock and disbelief. The strike had lasted just nine days before it was called off unconditionally by the TUC General Council. The coalowners and the Conservatives had no doubt at all that it was an unconditional surrender. Certainly, J. H. Thomas’ announcement of the end of the strike seemed to one group of railwaymen listening to the ‘wireless’ to confirm this:

We heard Jimmy Thomas almost crying as he announced the terms of what we thought were surrender, and we went back with our tails between our legs to see what the bosses were going to do with us.

The next day The Daily Mail headline was ‘surrender of the revolutionaries’ and Churchill’s British Gazette led with ‘Surrender received by Premier’. The TUC had agreed to the compromise put forward by the Samuel Commission, but the embittered MFGB leadership did not and the lock-out continued for seven months (see the photo below, titled End of the Strike). The miners refused to accept the cut in wages and increase in hours demanded by the owners and the government.

The reasoning behind this decision has been argued over ever since, but, following the backlash over the ‘Zinoviev Letter’, the General Strike of 1926 demonstrated the unwillingness of even radical trade unionists to push the system too far and be seen to be acting coercively and unconstitutionally. Additionally, when the showdown came in 1926 it was not really, as The Times had dramatised it in September 1919, a fight to the finish, because industrial union power was already shifting to other sections of the economy.

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From Retribution & Recrimination to ‘Recovery’ & Reconciliation, 1926-29:

After the Strike was called off, the bitter polarisation of the classes remained. There are few photographs which record the misery of victimisation that followed the ending of the strike. Courageous men in lonely country districts who had struck in twos and threes were easy victims for retribution. The railway companies were the first to act we, turning away railwaymen when they reported for work. Men with decades of loyal service were demoted, moved to posts far from home, or simply not re-engaged. The railwayman quoted above was one of these victims:

I was told within a couple of days that I had been dismissed the service – a very unusual thing, and I think that very few station masters  in the Kingdom can say that they had had the sack, but that was the case with me, and I know at least two more who had the same experience. 

Of those who formed the TUC deputation to Baldwin, only Ernest Bevin sought an assurance against retribution. None was given, so speaking at the end of the strike, he prophesied that thousands would be victimised as a result of this day’s work. The NUR was forced to sign a humiliating document that included the words the trade unions admit that in calling the strike they committed a wrongful act. The coalowners’ final reckoning came with the slow return to work at the end of the year. They prepared blacklists, excluding ‘militants’ from their pits, and gave them to the police at the pitheads. Some men never returned to work until 1939, following Britain’s declaration of war. Vengeful employers felt justified in these actions by the blessings they had received from the pulpits of Christian leaders, including Cardinal Bourne, the Roman Catholic Primate and Archbishop of Westminster, preaching in Westminster Cathedral on 9th May:

There is no moral justification  for a General Strike of this character. It is therefore a sin against the obedience which we owe to God. … All are bound to uphold and assist the Government, which is the lawfully-constituted authority of the country and represents therefore, in its own appointed sphere, the authority of God himself.

In a period when these issues of morality, legitimacy, and constitutionalism carried great weight, and church-going was still significant among all classes, it is not wholly surprising that the TUC leaders were wary of over-reaching their power in mid-twenties’ Britain. We also need to recall that the Labour Party had a very strong tradition of pacifism, and although outbreaks of violence against people or property were rare events during the coal stoppage and the General Strike, at the time the strike was called off there would have been natural concerns among the Labour leaders about their ability to control the more militant socialists and communists active among the rank and file trades unionists. George Lansbury (pictured below) addressed some of these concerns in the context of his Christian Socialism:

One Whose life I revere and Who, I believe, is the greatest Figure in history, has put it on record: “Those who take the sword shall perish by the sword” … If mine was the only voice in this Conference, I would say in the name of the faith I hold, the belief I have that God intended us to live peaceably and quietly with one another, if some people do not allow us to do so, I am ready to stand as the early Christians did, and say, “This is our faith, this is where we stand and, if necessary, this is where we will die.”

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On the other hand, the Fabian Socialist, Beatrice Webb was scathing in her assessment of what she believed the General Strike had revealed about the lack of support for revolutionary socialism among British workers:

The government has gained immense prestige in the world and the British Labour movement has made itself ridiculous. A strike which opens with a football match  between police and strikers and ends nine days later with densely-packed reconciliation services at all the chapels and churches of Great Britain attended by the strikers and their families, will make the continental Socialists blaspheme. Without a shot fired or a life lost … the General Strike of 1926 has by its absurdity made the Black Friday of 1921 seem to be a red letter day of common sense. Let me add that the failure of the General Strike shows what a ‘sane’ people the British are. If only our revolutionaries would realise the hopelessness of their attempt to turn the British workman into a Red Russian …The British are hopelessly good-natured and common-sensical – to which the British workman adds pigheadedness, jealousy and stupidity. … We are all of us just good-natured stupid folk.

The Conservative government revelled in the defeat of the strike and turned to the slow crushing of the miners. They sent an official note of protest to the Soviet government, determined to stop the collection of relief money by Russian trade unionists. Neville Chamberlain instructed the authorities to tighten up on relief payments which were already at a starvation figure of five shillings for a wife and two shillings for each child. The men were precluded from Poor Relief by a law originating in 1898 in which the coalowners had brought a court action against the Guardians of Merthyr Tydfil for giving miners outdoor relief during the miners’ strike of that year. The government was now quick to insist that work was available, albeit for longer hours and less pay than that those set out in the previous agreements between the mine-owners and the mineworkers, and then insisted that the law concerning relief should be vigorously applied, even to the pit boys, aged fourteen to sixteen, who were not allowed to join a trade union. When, after months of hunger and deprivation, the miners organised a fund-raising mission to the United States, Baldwin wrote a vindictive letter to the US authorities stating that there was no dire need in the coalfields. This was at a time when Will John, MP for Rhondda West, was telling the Board of Guardians that women were now carrying their children to the communal kitchens because the children had no shoes. As the plight of the miners grew worse, the govern In July, his government announced that a bill would be passed lengthening the working day in the mines.

Four million British subjects were thus put on the rack of hunger by a Cabinet of wealthy men. They even introduced a special new law, the Board of Guardians (Default) Bill, in an attempt to rule by hunger. Despite all these measures, the miners were able to exist for nearly seven months before being driven to accept the terms of the owners. This was a story of community struggle in the face of siege conditions. Aid for the miners came from the organised Labour and trade union movement, which raised tens of thousands of pounds. Russian trade unionists collected over a million pounds. Co-ops extended credit in the form of food vouchers, gave away free bread and made long-term loans. The funds of the Miners’ Federations and the MFGB proved hopelessly inadequate in supporting the ‘striking’ men.

Meanwhile, whilst the participants in round-table talks between the unions and management, convened by the chemical industrialist Sir Alfred Mond, were meant to reintroduce a spirit of goodwill into industrial relations, the Conservative government introduced a bill to prevent any future General Strike and attempted to sever the financial link between the unions and the Labour Party. This eventually became the 1927 Trade Disputes Act made it illegal for any strike to intend to coerce the government. It also became illegal for a worker in ‘essential employment’ to commit a breach of contract; in effect, this was a return to the old law of ‘master and servant’ which had been swept away by the Employers’ and Workmen’s Act of 1875.

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Unemployed miners getting coal from the Tredegar ‘patches’ in the late twenties.

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The memory of 1926 became seared into the culture and folklore of mining communities as epitomised in Idris Davies’ poem, Do you remember 1926? Certainly, it marked a fracture line in Labour history, as following the lock-out, many miners abandoned the industry and looked for work in the newer industries in the Midlands and South East of England. Hundreds of thousands joined the migrant stream out of the working-class communities of Wales, the North of England and central Scotland, often taking with them their cultural traditions and institutions (see the photo montage below).

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But whether they went into ‘exile’ or stayed at ‘home’, the miners were determined to use the memory of their defeat to fight back. W. P. Richardson of the Durham miners expressed their feelings:

The miners are on the bottom and have been compelled to accept dictated and unjust terms. The miners will rise again and will remember because they cannot forget. The victors of today will live to regret their unjust treatment of the miners.

Nevertheless, following its defeat at the hands of the people of Poplar, and in the spirit of class conciliation which followed the General Strike of 1926, both Conservative and Labour governments were naturally cautious in their interventions in the administration of unemployment benefit and poor relief. Although such interventions were subtle, and at times even reluctant, following on from the miners’ dispute, an alliance of the Baldwin Government, leading Civil Servants, together with advocates and adherents of the Social Service movement, had set into motion a cultural counter-revolution which was designed to re-establish their hegemony over industrial areas with large working-class populations. The wartime experience of directing labour resources, and production had given the Coalition ministers a sense of responsibility towards ex-servicemen and it had established several training centres for disabled veterans. The national Government also exercised a limited responsibility, through the Unemployment Grants Committee, together with local authorities, for public works through which the unemployed could be temporarily absorbed. Also, the wartime creation of the Ministry of Labour and a network of employment exchanges provided the means whereby a more adventurous policy could be pursued.

By the end of 1926, the training centres were turning their attention to the wider problem of unemployment, enabling the victims of industrial depression to acquire skills that would facilitate their re-entry into the labour market. Though this often meant resettlement in another area that was not the foremost purpose of the programme. In any case, the regional pattern of unemployment was only just beginning to emerge by the mid-twenties. The Director of the Birmingham Training Centre who went to Wales in 1926 to recruit members for his course was able to offer his audience very little, except lodgings at 18a week and one free meal a day. The weekly allowance of a trainee was just 23s, and training lasted six months. The real shift in Government policy came in 1927, with Neville Chamberlain invoking his powers as Minister for Health and Local Government to curb Poplarism, under the Bill he had introduced following the General Strike. Commissioners appointed by the Government replaced those local Boards of Guardians that were considered profligate in the administration of the Poor Law.

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The Lord Mayor’s fund for distressed miners report, published in ‘The Sphere’, 1929.

The Baldwin government’s second interventionist act was effected through the setting up of the Mansion House Fund in 1928, stemming from the joint appeal of the Lord Mayors of London, Newcastle and Cardiff for help in the relief of the distressed areas. This voluntary approach had, in fact, been initiated by Neville Chamberlain himself, who had written to the Lord Mayor of London in very direct terms:

Surely we cannot be satisfied to leave these unhappy people to go through the winter with only the barest necessities of life.

However, the Government itself acted in support of the voluntary effort rather than taking direct responsibility for it, and it is clear that the main objective of the action was to encourage transference away from the older industrial areas, especially through the provision of boots, clothing and train fare expenses. It was against this background that the Government then established the Industrial Transference Board the following January under the wing of the Ministry of Labour. Much of the initial funding for its work came from the Mansion House Fund. The operation of the Unemployment Grants Committee was carefully directed to conform to this strategy, under advice from the Industrial Transference Board:

As an essential condition for the growth of the will to move, nothing should be done which might tend to anchor men to their home district by holding out an illusory prospect of employment. We therefore reject as unsound policy, relief works in the depressed areas. Such schemes are temporary; at the end the situation is much as before, and the financial resources either at the Exchequer or of the Local Authorities have been drained to no permanent purpose. Grants of assistance such as those made by the Unemployment Grants Committee, which help to finance works carried out by the Local Authority in depressed areas, for the temporary employment of men in those areas, are a negation of the policy which ought in our opinion to be pursued.

As a result, the Government deliberately cut its grants for public works to the depressed areas and instead offered funds at a low rate of interest to prosperous areas on the condition that at least half the men employed on work projects would be drawn from the depressed areas. In August 1928, Baldwin himself made an appeal in the form of a circular, which was distributed throughout the prosperous areas. Every employer who could find work for DA men was asked to contact the nearest Labour Exchange, which would then send a representative to discuss the matter. However, Chamberlain expressed his disappointment over the results of this appeal later that year, and his officials became concerned that the cut-backs made in grants to local authorities for relief work in the depressed areas might lead to a serious level of disorder which would prove minatory to recent poor law policy. The following year, Winston Churchill took responsibility for drafting major sections of the Local Government Act, which reformed the Poor Law and brought about de-rating and a system of block grants. In a speech on the Bill in the Commons, he argued that it was…

… much better to bring industry back to the necessitous areas than to disperse their population, at enormous expense and waste, as if you were removing people from a plague-stricken or malarious region.

However, not for the last time, Churchill’s rhetorical turn of phrase was not appreciated by Chamberlain, who clearly saw in the Bill the means for the more careful management of local authorities, rather than as a means of equalising the effects of the low rateable values of these areas. Of course, Churchill was soon out of office, having held it for four years as Chancellor of the Exchequer, during which time he lowered pensionable age to sixty-five, introduced pensions for widows, and decreased the income-tax rate by ten per cent for the lowest earners among tax-payers.

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The Prince of Wales became the Patron of the National Council of Social Services in 1928, a body established to co-ordinate the charitable work of the various charitable organisations which had grown up throughout the decade to ‘dabble’ with the problems of unemployment. That year he made an extensive tour of the depressed areas in South Wales, Tyneside, Scotland and Lancashire, where (above) he is pictured shaking hands with a worker in Middleton. He met men who had already been unemployed for years and, visibly and sincerely shaken, is reported to have said:

Some of the things I see in these gloomy, poverty stricken areas made me almost ashamed to be an Englishman. … isn’t it awful that I can do nothing for them but make them smile.

As the parliamentary year ended, the Labour Party, and in particular its women MPs, could be forgiven for believing that they had much to look forward in the final year of the Twenties. Perhaps one of the changes the ‘flappers’ might have wished to see was a less patronising attitude from the press and their male colleagues than is displayed in the following report…

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(to be continued…)

 

 

Posted December 24, 2019 by TeamBritanniaHu in Affluence, Agriculture, Austerity, Britain, British history, Cartoons, Christian Faith, Christian Socialism, Christianity, Church, Churchill, Co-operativism, Coalfields, Commemoration, Economics, First World War, History, Integration, Journalism, Labour Party, liberalism, Marxism, Migration, Militancy, Narrative, nationalisation, Nonconformist Chapels, Reconciliation, Respectability, Scotland, Social Service, Socialist, south Wales, Trade Unionism, Transference, tyranny, Unemployment, Wales, Welsh language, Women's History, World War One

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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.

 

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

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