Archive for the ‘Macmillan’ Tag

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

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

The Brighton Bombing:

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

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

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

The Gorbachevs in London:

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

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

“Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

Heseltine and the Helicopters:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Shadowing’ the Deutschmark & ‘Diva’ Diplomacy:

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

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

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

The Bombing of Libya and ‘BBC Bias’:

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

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

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

‘PBX. Calling Mr John Simpson.’

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

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

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

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

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

“You think so?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transcript of interview with Prime Minister, 18.6.87:

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

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

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

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

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The ‘Poll Tax’ and the Peasants:

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

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

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

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

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

Bruges Bluntness & Madrid Madness:

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

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

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

Piper Alpha – The Price of Oil and Who Profited?

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

Birt, the BBC & Beijing:

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

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

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

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

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Above. The Morning of 20 May in Tiananmen Square.

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

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

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

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

Budapest, Berlin & Bucharest: Falling Dominoes of 1989:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

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

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

 

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Britain in the Seventies: 1974-79 – The Three-day week to The Winter of Discontent, Part One.   Leave a comment

Part One: The Economic Storm and Europe.

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Denis Healey, chancellor during Britain’s economic storm,

making a characteristic point to his opponents.

The Return of Harold & the Advent of The Social Contract:

In January 1974, the Heath government announced a three-day working week to save fuel. It is remembered as the darkest month, quite literally, in the story of mid-seventies’ Britain. I was in my first year of A Level studies in Birmingham, writing essays on the kitchen table by candlelight since all the lights went out by 10.30 p.m. each evening. At least there was no TV to act as a distraction! Heath and his government struggled to find a solution to the miners’ claim, but this process was hardly helped when he asked Mick McGahey, the legendary Scottish Communist mineworkers’ leader what he really wanted and was met by the typically blunt reply, to bring down the government. After much messing about with intermediaries and mixed messages, not least from the government’s own Pay Board, it became clear that no effective compromise could be found. The miners voted 81% in favour of striking, including those in some of the traditionally most moderate areas in the country. In February, Heath asked the Queen to dissolve Parliament and he went to the country on the election platform he had prepared two years earlier; Who Governs Britain? The country’s answer was not the one he had hoped for.

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Harold Wilson had expected the Tories to win another term and began the campaign in a low-key mood. However, Labour’s cause was helped by its offer of a referendum on EEC membership, which led many Powellites and anti-EEC Tories to think of voting for them, at least covertly. Also, his year in opposition had given him the opportunity to come up with a more workable solution to the problems posed by inflation and union wage demands. The Social Contract was a joint agreement between the union leaders and the Labour shadow cabinet, and was essentially a return to the politics of the forties, with price controls, a complex system of food subsidies and the end of the Tory union laws. In return for this Attlee-age ‘austerity’ manifesto, the unions gave vague promises of voluntary pay restraint. It was a one-way deal, but it was in Wilson’s interests to pretend that he could find practical agreements with ‘the brothers’ where Heath could not.  It was in the unions’ interests to pretend that they were signing up to a new era of sweetness and light which would replace the bitter hostility towards the Tories and their anti-union legislation. Outside observers saw it as it as a ploy for the TUC to gain a privileged place in government in return for very little and a recipe for further inflation.

As it turned out, and with the benefit of hindsight, the three-day week was not the outright disaster it had seemed it would be. Industry had managed to maintain production levels, providing an interesting perspective on the limitations of five and six-day working which economists have periodically pointed to since. It had even provided for greater efficiency, and relatively few jobs had been lost. But Heath’s authority had gone, and in the election campaign the idea of the Social Contract caught on with voters. Wilson was able to present himself on television as the calm bringer of reason and order. A slew of bad economic news arrived during the campaign and was followed by Powell’s declaration that he was quitting the Conservatives over their failure to offer a Referendum on Europe and would be recommending everyone to vote Labour in order to ensure a choice on the subject. A mistake by the Pay Board revealed that the miners were more relatively poorly paid than had been recognised. A surge in support for the Liberals to a quarter of the popular vote also helped Labour more than it aided the Tories. Having decided that Heath should not rule, the government seemed undecided about whether Wilson should replace him. Enjoying a late swing in its favour, Labour won the most seats, 301 against 297, but no party had an overall majority. Heath hung on, trying to do a deal with the Liberal leader, Jeremy Thorpe, who had just fourteen MPs despite the surge in the support for the party, but he eventually conceded defeat. This resulted in the Queen asked Harold Wilson to form his third administration, a decade after his first.

But Wilson was governing without a Commons majority at a time when the economy was still coming to terms with the oil price hike, with rampant inflation, rising unemployment and the pound under almost constant pressure. Furthermore, the fragile ‘Social Contract’ had yet to be tested. Almost the first thing the Labour government did was to settle with the miners for almost double what Heath had thought was possible. The chances of the new government enjoying easy popularity, even with its working-class base, were practically nil, however. Nevertheless, an opposition comprising divided Tories, Liberals, Nationalists and Irish Unionists was unlikely to combine to defeat it on a regular basis. The new Chancellor, Denis Healey, introduced an emergency Budget a few weeks into the new Parliament, followed by another in the autumn which raised income tax to 83% at the top rate of earnings, and 98% for unearned income, eye-wateringly high. Healey claimed that his aim was to squeeze the rich until the pips squeak, a phrase which was to come back to haunt Labour for a generation to come. In the spirit of the ‘Social Contract’ Healey also increased help for the poorest, with higher pensions and housing and food subsidies. He was delivering for the unions as promised, just as Wilson himself was doing in abolishing the Conservative employment legislation. Heath remained as Tory leader, for the time being, convinced that Wilson would soon have to call a second election, which he would win. However, when this came in October, Wilson gained eighteen seats, enough to give him a workable overall majority of three.

Wilson, though, had privately decided that he would go in 1976, and he publicly acted accordingly. The question as to who would succeed him, Jenkins or Callaghan, Healey or even Benn, had become one about the direction of the Labour government, rather than a personal threat to Wilson. He seems likely to have known about the early stages of Alzheimer’s, which was to wreak a devastating toll on him in retirement. He forgot facts, confused issues and repeated himself. For a man whose memory and wit had been so important, this was a grim burden. If Roy Jenkins had been Wilson’s most important minister in the mid-sixties, it was Denis Healey who dominated public perceptions of the Labour government of the mid-seventies. As a Chancellor of the Exchequer during the worst economic storm of post-war times, through both the Wilson and Callaghan governments, he rivalled each of them as a public icon. Healey was one of the most widely read, cultured intelligent and self-assured politicians of modern times, whose early Communism, active war service and a vast range of international contacts did much to establish him in this role.

But the economy Wilson and Healey inherited from Heath and Barber in 1974 meant that much of his energy for the next five years would be thrown into dealing with the newly unstable world economy. The following Labour governments faced huge balance-of-payments crises and the tumbling value of the pound. Healey was taxing and cutting as much as he dared, but his only real hope was to control inflation by controlling wages. Wilson insisted that any incomes policy must be voluntary, with no going back to legal restraints. The unions became increasingly worried that rampant inflation might bring back the Tories. So for a while, the ‘Social Contract’ did deliver fewer strikes. In 1974-75, the number of days lost to strikes halved and then halved again in 1976. Contrary to popular myth, the seventies were not all about mass meetings and walk-outs. The real trouble did not start again until 1978-79. But the other half of the ‘Social Contract’ was supposed to deliver lower wage settlements, and this was an utter failure. By the early months of 1975, wage settlements were already running at thirty per cent above inflation. By June inflation was already up to twenty-three per cent and wage settlements were even further ahead. Healey reflected later that…

Adopting a pay policy is rather like jumping out of a second-floor window: no one in his senses would do it unless the stairs were on fire. But in postwar Britain the stairs have always been on fire.

By refusing to allow companies to pass on inflationary wage increases as higher prices, and by endless haggling with union leaders, Healey did manage to squeeze inflation downwards. It had reached twenty-four per cent by 1975 and came to be seen as a far more important issue than unemployment. On reflection, Healey believed that if the unions had kept their promises it would have been down to single figures by the autumn of 1975. The government was also at the mercy of the International Monetary Fund, which insisted on severe spending cuts. The contraction of manufacturing began to accelerate. There was a national and international political swing to the right as a reaction to against perceived high-taxing and high-spending governments. Demands were being made that governments cease propping up ‘lame duck’ industries with public money. Attacks on trade union power were becoming more and more popular, owing to a growing perception that they had become too powerful and disruptive, as the Miners’ Strike and the three-day week had graphically illustrated. At the same time, Healey was under constant pressure within the Labour party and wider ‘movement’ to show that he was delivering for socialism. He never accepted the Tory argument that high taxes stopped people from working harder and blamed Britain’s poor industrial performance on low investment in industry, poor training and bad management. Healey ultimately suffered quite personally from his own policies. He wrote:

As a result of my tax changes and my determination to prevent ministerial salaries from rising as fast as the pay norm, my own real take-home pay as Chancellor fell to only half what I had been earning as Defence Secretary, although I was working harder and longer.

The Great Debate – The EEC Referendum of 1975:

Against the background of the international economic crisis, Wilson kept his election promise and carried out a largely sham renegotiation of Britain’s terms of entry to the EEC. The reopened talks were understood to be more for Wilson’s benefit than for anyone else’s. He needed to persuade people that he was putting a different deal to the country than the one Heath had put to Parliament two years earlier. Helmut Schmidt, the new German Chancellor (pictured below), travelled to London to help win round the Labour conference, a trip that he regarded more as a cosmetic operation than a mission.

Wilson then put the result to the country in the Benn-inspired 1975 referendum, though when the referendum campaign actually began, his old evasiveness returned and he mumbled vaguely in support, rather than actively or enthusiastically making the European case. There were plenty of others to do this for him, however, and the campaign became a rare high-point in the political decade. To preserve longer-term party unity, he allowed the anti-EEC cabinet ministers to speak from the ‘No’ platform and Barbara Castle, Tony Benn, Peter Shore and Michael Foot were among those who did so, in alliance with Enoch Powell, Ian Paisley, the Scottish Nationalists and others. But the ‘Yes’ campaign could boast most of the Labour cabinet, with Roy Jenkins the chief protagonist, plus most of the Heath team, and popular Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe. Although I missed out on voting by just four days, my eighteenth birthday coming just after referendum day, I remember the sixth form debates, formally in General Studies sessions and informally out on the school playing fields at lunchtime. The arguments ranged from the effects of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) on the British economy through to the preservation of peace in Europe. This latter issue was important not just to younger voters, but also to their parents and grandparents who had experienced the Second World War.

Yes girls: Pro-EEC campaigners back Brussels at the 1975 referendum

Business was also strongly in favour of remaining in, a CBI survey of company chairmen found that out of 419 interviewed, just four were in favour of leaving the Community. Almost all the newspapers were in favour of staying in, including the Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph and Daily Express. So was every Anglican bishop, but their ‘flocks’ were more divided, believing, like my own nonconformist father, that the EEC was a ‘rich man’s club’ formed to rip off the poorer nations more effectively. The fight between ‘the Establishment’ and its critics was far from being funded on an equal basis. Britain in Europe, leading the ‘Yes’ campaign, outspent the ‘No’ camp by more than ten pounds to one. Both sides used scare stories. Britain in Europe constantly warned of a huge loss in jobs if the UK left the Community. The ‘No’ camp warned of huge rises in food prices if Britain remained in the CAP.

Yet this was also an almost carnival-like exercise in participatory democracy of a kind Britain had never seen. There were meetings, several thousand strong, night after night around the country, with hecklers and humour. There were all kinds of stunts and the country was covered with posters. The spectacle of politicians from rival parties who normally attacked one another sitting down together agreeing was a tonic to those watching. There were good television arguments, most notably between Jenkins and Benn. On the Labour side, however, there were awkward moments when rhetoric got too fierce and Wilson had to intervene to mediate between warring minister. Margaret Thatcher was also out campaigning, in a spectacularly hideous jumper with the flags of the member states knitted across her chest. The pictures from the time, shown above and below, captured something of the carnival atmosphere of the campaign.

Margaret Thatcher,  William Whitelaw and Peter Kirk, at a referendum conference. June 1975. Photo: Keystone/Getty Images

In the end, the people voted on the simple question on the ballot paper, Do you think the United Kingdom should stay in the European Community (the Common Market)? Their response produced seventeen million, a two-thirds majority (68.3 per cent) voting ‘Yes’, with 32.8 per cent, some 8.5 million voting ‘No’. Only in the Shetland and Western Isles of Scotland were there majorities for ‘No’. Benn instantly conceded defeat though privately considered the vote some achievement considering we had absolutely no real organisation, no newspapers, nothing. Powell, however, warned that the decision was only ‘provisional’ and might be reopened in the future. As so often, his was a lone voice. More than forty years later, and in the light of the 2016 Referendum result, the biggest question which remains is whether the British were told, by either Heath or Jenkins, the full implications of membership of the supranational organisation they were signing up to. Campaigners in 2016 on both ‘Remain’ and ‘Leave’ sides reported that people ‘on the doorstep’ complained that in 1975 we voted to remain in a Common Market, we didn’t vote to join a political union. Many among the third of the people who originally voted to leave the EEC in 1975 were joined by younger people over the following decades in suggesting that Heath and Jenkins had lied to the country, at least by omission, because they had not explained that the European Community’s law and institutions would sit above those of Westminster. What is the truth about this? Britain in Europe campaigners can point to speeches and advertisements which directly mention loss of sovereignty. One of the latter read:

Forty million people died in two European wars this century: Better lose a little national sovereignty than a son or daughter.

Yet both in Parliament and the referendum campaign, although the importance of securing a Pax Europa was constantly featured, the full consequences of membership for national independence were mumbled, not spoken clearly enough. Besides, it was the job of NATO to keep the peace, not the EEC. Undoubtedly, a free trade area in Europe would assist in this process, but it was not the primary purpose of the European Community. Geoffrey Howe, who drafted Heath’s European Communities Bill, later admitted that it could have been more explicit about lost sovereignty. Heath talked directly about the ever closer union of the peoples of Europe but was never precise about the effect on British law, as compared to an incoming tide. It flows into the estuaries and rivers. It cannot be held back. Hugo Young, the journalist and historian who studied the campaign in great detail, wrote:

I traced no major document or speech that said in plain terms that national sovereignty would be lost, still less one that categorically promoted the European Community for its single most striking characteristic that it was an institution positively designed to curb the full independence of the nation-state.

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Above: In the 1975 referendum, both sides campaigned more about the cost of food than about the constitutional implications of surrendering sovereignty.

There were, of course, the explicit warnings about lost sovereignty delivered by the ‘No’ campaigners among the more populist arguments about food prices. Above all, these arguments came from Enoch Powell, Michael Foot and Tony Benn. Powell’s language can be gauged from a speech he gave to political journalists in the Commons while the Bill was being debated. He lamented that the Commons was…

…perishing by its own hand. Week by week, month by month, the House of Commons votes to divest itself of what it had gained by through a length of time not much shorter than the History of England itself.

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Of course, a lot depends on when you begin your reading of the History of England from, but Powell (pictured above) would almost certainly have traced it back to the end of the tenth century, a period of a thousand years. In fact, the History of Parliament could be traced back only to the early thirteenth century, to the time of the De Montfort Rebellion, and it was only in the seventeenth century that it acquired real power. Michael Foot, though recovering from an operation and so not as prominent in the campaign as he might have been, wrote in The Times that the British parliamentary system had been made farcical and unworkable. Historians, he said, would be amazed…

that the British people were urged at such a time to tamper irreparably with their most precious institution; to see it circumscribed and contorted and elbowed off the centre of the stage. 

Tony Benn, confiding to his diary his reaction to the possibility of a Europe-wide passport, showed how much the left’s instincts could chime with those of the right-wing opponents of European change:

That really hit me in the guts… Like metrication and decimilisation, this really strikes at our national identity.

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All these arguments were made in the press, despite the overall bias, and repeatedly in public meetings and broadcast debates. So it is not as if people were not told, but the truth revealed by opinion polls both at the time and more recently, is that sovereignty as an issue did not, and does not concern the British public as much as jobs and food prices. By later standards under Thatcher, Major and Blair, the position of Parliament was not taken as seriously in public debates as it was by some leading, vociferous parliamentarians. It may be that ‘sovereignty’ as an abstract concept is always only of great interest to the political ‘classes’, not to the ordinary working-classes and professional middle-classes, except where a loss of sovereignty directly impacts on daily life and produces resented laws. In the seventies, as now, Britain’s political class was not highly respected, and Europe seemed to offer a glossier, richer future, especially for younger voters. Though the pro-Community majority in business and politics did not strive to ram home the huge implications of membership, the idea that they deceitfully hid the practical, political nature of what was happening was, and is a myth, a convenient one for those who subsequently changed their minds about the benefits of membership. The argument would return fifteen years later to the Conservative backbenches, though few people cared about it elsewhere until the divisions among Tory MPs spread to the cabinet a full forty years after the first referendum, provoking the second vote on the issue in 2016. This time, the issue of sovereignty was given a popular edge by the ‘inability’ of successive governments to control internal migrations to Britain from within the EU, and their continued failure to control immigration from the Commonwealth and elsewhere in the world.

Goodbye to Ted and Harold, and All That… :

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Much of the remaining time of Wilson’s final government was taken up with foreign affairs. Despite American disapproval, the Labour government began the final withdrawal from east of Suez, giving up any pretensions of continuing British influence in the Far East. The Empire was finally, formally, over. A few ‘outposts’ remained, most significantly Hong Kong, and the lines it had drawn on the map in the Middle East – Transjordan, Israel, Iraq – were to provide the focus for continuing and future conflicts. In Iraq, an unpopular king was overthrown in a military coup, leading to the régime of Saddam Hussein. The Commonwealth was never a coherent policy-setting organisation, and this was particularly so after the UK decided to stay in the European Economic Community. Her members often had diametrically opposed trading interests. Time and again, on issues such as Apartheid South Africa, Rhodesia, and questions of migration, the Commonwealth would fracture, or embarrass London. Was it kept going out of nostalgia and sentimentality or to give the Queen a role outside the UK? At least it provided the last English-speaking worldwide ‘club’ not dominated by the USA.

Wilson, by now clearly to the right of the party, was equally determined that Tony Benn would not introduce a socialist economy via the National Enterprise Board. When it eventually arrived, the NEB was a weak, ill-funded repository for lost economic causes, British Leyland in particular. Benn’s enthusiasm for workers’ control continued to irritate most of the other ministers and civil servants he worked with, so that he confided in his diary that he felt like he was trying to swim up the Niagara Falls. He was particularly keen on co-operatives, and took up the cause of the Meriden Motorcycle factory, struggling to survive under workers’ control. But these were the last days in the era of planning and public control of industry and Benn’s support for these made him a traditionalist rather than a radical. Later, Healey brutally summed up his rival’s contribution as minister to British industry. There were only two monuments to Benn in power, he said: a uranium mine in Namibia he had authorised as energy secretary, which helped support apartheid; and Concorde, used by rich people on expense accounts and subsidised by poorer taxpayers.

Wilson retired, as he had always said he would, at the age of sixty. Nevertheless, his announcement astonished his cabinet and left London awash with rumours. He was still witty enough to joke that, in respect of his preferred successor Jim Callaghan, that he was making way for an older man, and wily enough to give Callaghan a tip-off which helped him steal a march on the other candidates, including Healey, who only heard the news of Wilson’s retirement from Wilson himself in the gents toilet before the cabinet meeting at which he formally announced it. Wilson saw his reputation sink steadily downwards with his memory. It was a sad way for a fundamentally decent man to subside.

Meanwhile, in the middle of June 1974, a speech by Sir Keith Joseph signalled a major shift in Tory thinking. Joseph was the son of a rich London businessman, who had risen to become housing and then health minister under first Macmillan and then Heath. He had spent heavily on a bigger bureaucracy for the NHS and higher social security levels. Now he was quite literally wringing his hands and rolling his eyes with mortification. There had, he said, been thirty years of government interventions, good intentions and disappointments, thirty years of socialism under both Labour and the Tories. He admitted: I must take my blame for following too many of the fashions. His conversion to free-market, small-state economics had the force of a religious experience. He had joined the Conservative Party in the 1950s, but now felt that he had never really been a Conservative. Within five years, this kind of thinking would lead to the Thatcher revolution and the wholesale rejection of the Heath years, building on the ideas of academic economists right into the centre of British public life. Other fellow travellers were Americans and a few Powellite Tories who were outside the Tory mainstream. Crucial to the success of these ideas in government would be controlling the amount of money in the economy to keep out inflation, which meant squeezing how much was borrowed and spent by the State. As a former cabinet minister with close and direct experience of government. With his Centre for Policy Studies, he was the rain-maker, the storm-bringer, the Old Testament prophet denouncing his tribe. For now, however, the approaching cloud was no bigger than a man’s hand.

Keith Joseph argued that the Britain of the mid-seventies had a fundamental choice to make between a socialist siege economy or a breakaway into proper liberal capitalism, in effect between Benn and Joseph. He could not have formed his ideas without the libertarian and monetarist thinkers of the fifties and sixties. During the Tories’ years in opposition from 1964 to 1970, Joseph had educated himself in free-market economics and was soon using as his speechwriter Alfred Sherman, an East End boy from a left-wing family who had fought as a machine-gunner in the Spanish Civil War before swinging right round later and becoming an insistent right-wing critic of the British way. But in Heath’s government, Joseph’s radicalism had gone into hiding again, and Sherman described him dismissively as a good man fallen among civil servants. But the defeat of 1974 had shaken Joseph and with other monetarists he began a rethink of the Heath years, culminating in a shadow cabinet post-mortem when they argued that the early radicalism of 1970-71, led by the Cliveden group, had been right, and the subsequent U-turn a disaster. Heath blankly refused to listen, or at any rate to heed, the attack. Heath’s haughty assessment in his autobiography was that Joseph…

had resumed a friendship with a person called Alfred Sherman, a former communist, and undergone what he liked to call “a conversion” as a result … (this) failed to cut any ice with the great majority of his colleagues, though we did them the courtesy of listening.

In fact, many Tories were beginning to listen. With Joseph were Geoffrey Howe and Margaret Thatcher. Early on, Howe warned,

I am not at all sure about Margaret. Many of her economic prejudices are certainly sound. But she is inclined to be rather too dogmatic for my liking on sensitive matters like education and might actually retard the case by simplification.

There were other new radicals, such as the Powellite MP John Biffen, the young economist Nigel Lawson and a crowd of journalists and academics. They produced an intellectual analysis, hard and uncompromising, which excited a generation of new recruits to the party, while it repelled Tories of the comfortable, compromising Macmillan persuasion. Macmillan himself said of Joseph that he was the only boring Jew I’ve ever known. and later there would be much snide muttering about the men Thatcher learned from and worked with – Hayek, Sherman, Joseph, Lawson and Friedman. Jews were prominent in intellectual thinking on the right, as they had been on the left, bringing opposite lessons to Britain from the disasters of continental Europe. A serious commitment to ideas and old-fashioned attitudes to education gave them their unique influence in politics. Thatcher was open to these ideas, ready to listen, unprejudiced, unlike many traditional Tories.

In the winter of 1974-5, after Heath had lost his second successive election to Wilson, there was no such thing as ‘Thatcherism’. Margaret Thatcher was still expressing her public support for the politics of ‘consensus’. She backed intervention in the housing market and queried the sale of council housing by Tory-run local authorities. Neither was there any sign that she would become the leader of the Tory party. Heath was stubbornly determined to stay on, insisting that his supporters, who included most of the well-known Tories of the day, were backing him in this determination. Indeed, polls suggested that seventy per cent of Tories wanted him to stay on. Yet there was deep dissatisfaction on the Tory benches in Parliament. Sir Edward Du Cann, who chaired the all-important backbenchers’ 1922 Committee, began to take soundings about a challenge to Heath. He was backed by the arch-intriguer Airey Neave, but Neave soon pulled out in favour of Keith Joseph. He then made a catastrophically ill-judged speech in which he suggested that working-class women were having too many babies and should be prevented from degrading the gene pool. This finished the man who Private Eye had already dubbed the mad monk.

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Heath had failed to accept that two successive general election defeats meant he really had to go so that Tory moderates were not lining up to replace him. Airey Neave persuaded many of them to vote for Thatcher because she had no chance of defeating Heath, but a contest might force him out, as a ‘stalking horse’, then allowing more serious candidates to stand. On 4 February 1975, she shocked everyone by defeating Heath in the first ballot by 130 votes to 119. She then went on to beat the two other candidates easily. The undercurrent of free-market thinking that had been gurgling around since the fifties broke to the surface in spectacular fashion, changing Britain for good. Few of the Tory MPs in what was called the peasants’ revolt realised quite where their new leader would take them. For the next four years, supercilious, misogynist remarks from first Wilson and then Callaghan would be continually directed against her, but then she would turn her femininity, if not her feminism, against them to great effect. She was to break the mould of the Wilson-Heath era in more ways than one.

(to be continued…)

Britain Sixty Years Ago (VII): Between Two Worlds, 1958-63   Leave a comment

Notting Hill, 1958 and After: Pity the Poor Immigrant…?

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Just as in the time of the Blair-Brown administrations of a decade ago, sixty years ago it was not regarded as respectable to express concerns about immigration to Britain, much less to voice anti-immigrant feeling. At both ends of the fifty year period of general prosperity, the elite turned its eyes and ears away from the door-slamming and shunning, and escaped into well-meant, windy generalities about the brotherhood of man and fellow-citizens of the Crown, or more latterly vacuous epithets about celebrating a mythological multi-cultural Cool Britannia, a land at ease with itself.  Most of the hostility was at the level of street culture, mostly covert and casual but occasionally overtly aggressive and violent, organised or orchestrated by white gangs of ‘nigger-hunting’ Teddy boys and small groups of right-wing extremists. The main motivation seems to have been young male testosterone-led territory-marking.

 

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From Austerity to Affluence: Britain, 1945-64.

This all came to a head in 1958 with the Notting Hill riots, more an event which symbolised change than one of real, bloody slaughter. In reality, no-one was killed in the rampaging and, by the standards of later rioting, there was little physical damage to either people or property. The trouble actually started in the poor St Ann’s district of Nottingham and only spread to London’s Notting Hill a day later. On 18 August, the Times reported on the Nottingham fight between coloured and white people and how some Conservative MPs saw it as a red light warning of further troubles to come. They intended to renew their demand for control to be placed on immigration from the Commonwealth and the colonies when Parliament reassembled in October. Thirty of them had already signed a motion (never debated) during the previous session, which had expressed their disquiet over…

… the continuing influx of indigent immigrants from the Commonwealth and colonies, thousands of whom have immediately sought National Assistance.

Even before the outbreak of the riots at Notting Hill, Norman Pannell, Tory MP for the Kirkdale division of Liverpool and leader of this group, had tabled a similarly worded resolution on the agenda of their autumn Party Conference. Pannell had commented to the Times the previous day:

The Nottingham fighting is a manifestation of the evil results of the present policy and I feel that unless some restriction is imposed we shall create the colour-bar we all wish to avoid… The object of my representation is to get some control, not to bar all Commonwealth immigration, but to see that the immigrants shall not be a charge on public funds, and that they are deported when they are guilty of serious crimes.

Yet what happened at Notting Hill was a large and deeply unpleasant outbreak of anti-immigrant violence which ran for a total of six days, across two late summer weekends. It was no coincidence that Notting Hill was the area where the rioting happened as distinct from, say, Brixton, which also had a very large and visible black population by the mid-fifties. Notting Hill had the most open, well-known street culture for black people, with Soho on one side and the new BBC headquarters on the other. This sub-culture was also well-advertised and celebrated by hacks, broadcasters and novelists. Known for its gambling dens and drinking-clubs, it also had a resentful and impoverished white population and, more importantly, in the words of two historians of British immigration put it:

It had multi-occupied houses with families of different races on each floor. It had a large population of internal migrants, gypsies and Irish, many of them transient single men, packed into a honeycomb of rooms with communal kitchens, toilets and no bathrooms.

Into this honeycomb poured a crowd first of tens, and then of hundreds of white men, armed first with sticks, knives, iron railings and bicycle chains, and soon with petrol-bombs too. They were overwhelmingly young,  mostly from nearby areas of London, and looking for trouble. They began by picking on small groups of blacks caught out on the streets, beating them and chasing them. They then moved to black-occupied houses and began smashing windows. The crowds swelled out until they were estimated at more than seven hundred strong, whipped up by the occasional neo-fascist agitator, but much more directed by local whites. Racist songs and chants of ‘niggers out’, the smashing of windows – although some local whites protected and fought for their black neighbours – this was mob violence of a kind that Brits thought they had long left behind. They shrunk away again, however, at the sight of black men making a stand, and fighting back with petrol bombs. There were a hundred and forty arrests, mainly of white youths, and though far-right parties continued to organise in the area, there was no discernible electoral impact, or indeed any more serious trouble. The huge press coverage ensured, however, that Britain went through its first orgy of national naval-gazing about its liberalism and its immigration policy, while overseas racist régimes such as those of South Africa and Rhodesia mocked their hang-wringing British cousins.

After the riots, many black people did ‘go home’. Returns to the Caribbean soared to more than four thousand. There, West Indian governments expressed outrage at the riots and made it clear that there would be no action by them to restrict migration in order to appease lawless white thugs. The Commonwealth retained a loose association between Crown, obligation and common citizenship which felt real to politicians of both parties. Pressure to close the open border for Commonwealth citizens hardly increased in the Tory Party after the Notting Hill riots, though extra-parliamentary campaigns, such as the Birmingham Immigration Control Association, did spring up. Of course, given that the violence was directed against immigrants by whites, it would have been grossly unfair had the first reaction been to send people home. Labour was wholly against restricting immigration, arguing that it would be disastrous to our status within the Commonwealth. 

The Notting Hill Carnival, begun the following year, was an alternative response, celebrating black culture openly. For many black migrants, the riots marked the beginning of assertion and self-organisation. They were looked back on as a ‘racial Dunkirk’, the darkest moment after which the real fightback began. Even in the ‘darkest’ days of 1958, there was a lighter side to the popular street culture which those ‘journalists’ who dared or bothered to walk the same streets, discovered for themselves. An Irish informant told T R Fyvel, author of The Insecure Offenders (1961) that the excessive interest of Teddy Boys in their own and each other’s clothes and hair-styles revealed a basic effeminacy and nothing else:

If you look into the motive you will find it was largely jealousy… of the girls for being the centre of attention. They just couldn’t stand not having it all to themselves. If you had listened to these Teds as I did when they stood about in dance-halls, all you would hear about was clothes and style. One would say: “I paid seventeen guineas for this suit at so-and-so’s”, the other, “I paid this new Jew tailor nineteen guineas for mine.” They could talk literally for hours about styles and cut and prices, the way you usually only hear women talk. But even if they all weren’t effeminate, though I know some of them were, the main thing with these Teds was that they had to outshine the way the girls dressed by the way they themselves were dressed. The Teddy boy was always the person who had to stand out.

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Within the young British West Indian community, clothes and hair did not need to be of a certain cut or style at this time; it was the “patois” which had a special role as a token of identity. But it was not a simple role for newly arrived immigrants, as one Jamaican schoolgirl living in London explained the complicated social pressures that frowned on Jamaican Creole in Jamaica, but that made it almost obligatory in London:

It’s rather weird ‘cos when I was in Jamaica I wasn’t really allowed to speak it (Jamaican Creole) in front of my parents. I found it difficult in Britain at first. When I went to school I wanted to be like the others in order not to stand out. So I tried speaking the patois as well … You get sort of a mixed reception. Some people say, “You sound really nice, quite different.” Other people say, “You’re a foreigner, speak English. Don’t try to be like us, ‘cos you’re not like us.”

Despite this mixed reception from her British West Indian friends, she persevered with the patois, and, as she put it, “after a year, I lost my British accent, and was accepted.” But this was not, strictly speaking, Jamaican English. For many Caribbean visitors to Britain, the patois of Brixton and Notting Hill was of a stylised form that was not, as they heard it, truly Jamaican, not least because British West Indians had arrived from all over the Caribbean. Another British West Indian schoolgirl, who was born in Britain, was teased for her patois when she visited the Caribbean for the first time:

 I haven’t lived in Jamaica, right? But what I found  when I went out there was that when I tried to speak Jamaican (Creole) they laughed at me. They said I’m trying to copy them and I don’t sound right and that. They want me to speak as I speak now.

The experience convinced her that “in London, the Jamaicans have developed their own language in patois, sort of. ‘Cos they make up their own words in London, in, like, Brixton. And then it just develops into Patois as well.” By the early 1980s, investigators found that there were white children in predominantly black schools who used the British West Indian patois in order to be acceptable to the majority of their friends:

I was born in Brixton and I’ve been living here for seventeen years, and so I just picked it up from hanging around with my friends who are mainly black people. And so I can relate to them by using it, because otherwise I’d feel an outcast. 

On the other hand, the same schoolboy knew that the creole was something for a special set of circumstances:

But when I’m with someone else who I don’t know I try to speak as fluent English as possible. It’s like I feel embarrassed about it (the patois), I feel like I’m degrading myself by using it.

The unconscious racism of such comments points to the predicament faced by British black people. Not fully accepted, for all the rhetoric, by the established white community, they felt neither fully Caribbean nor fully British, even by the 1980s. This was the poignant outcome of what British black writer Caryl Phillips called, The Final Passage. Phillips came to Britain in the late 1950s himself, and was one of the first of his generation to grapple with the problem of finding a means of literary self-expression that was true to his experience:

The paradox of my situation is that where most immigrants have to learn a new language, Caribbean immigrants have to learn a new form of the same language. It induces linguistic schizophrenia – you have an identity crisis that mirrors the larger cultural confusion. 

His novel, The Final Passage, is narrated in Standard English, but the speech of the characters is obviously a rendering of nation language:

I don’t care what anyone tell you, going to England be good for it going raise your mind. For a West Indian boy like you just being there is an education, for you going see what England do for sheself … it’s a college for the West Indian.

The lesson of this college for the West Indian is, as Phillips put it, that symptomatic of the colonial situation, the language has been divided as well.

The new ‘youth’ styles of late-fifties Britain, expressing themselves partly, as almost everything else in the period did, in terms of consumption patterns, also indicated subtle shifts in attitude and outlook: but no-one changed their life-chances by becoming a Teddy Boy or Mod. It can’t be said that adult members of the official culture displayed much sympathy into either of the ‘dreams’, of freedom or recognition, that Ray Gosling gave voice to in the following extracts, first of all from the BBC Programme, It’s My Life, and secondly from his article Dream Boy, which appeared in the New Left Review of May/June 1960:

I remember coming out of the Elephant & Castle, the big theatre at the corner, the Trocadero, and it was after seeing the Bill Haley film, ‘Rock Around the Clock’, and we all went down the Old Kent Road, and at the end… all the fire engines were there, and they got their hoses all ready, and it was a… terrible big thing. You felt you were it. Not only because you were young, but you felt the rest of your lives would be, well, ordered by you and not ordered by other people. We felt we could do anything we bloody well wanted, … anything at all, nothing could stop you. You were the guv’ner – you were the king. The world was free – the world was open.

The dreamland is always, like the win on the pools, just around the corner. The man with the big cigar from up West who discovers The Boy, and buys him up, never arrives … The haze that surrounds the life of The Boy is a fog of fear, and not the mist about to rise on a dazzling dawn of success. He lives in Birmingham, not Hollywood, a dead Empire in a sunset world, yet still hopes that somehow, an Eden will pull off the trick, Super Mac will open those golden gates, and here along the M1 the orange trees of California will begin to blossom … And so this boy with everyone and everything against him, plays out his own private drama to the fuggy street, with his god on a chain round his neck, his girl clinging to his arm. Against all of them: in search of the heaven he sees on the glossy page, the screen, and the hoarding.

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When the BBC Radio Any Questions panel was asked to comment on the events surrounding the showing of Bill Haley’s Rock Around the Clock, Mary Stocks remarked that young people were merely exhibiting a sort of unexpended animal spirits; Lord Boothby, the newspaper proprietor and Conservative politician, expressed the view that he’d rather they all wet off to Cairo and started teddy-boying around there, while Jeremy Thorpe, the future Liberal Party leader, said that Jazz to me comes from the jungle and this is jungle music taken to its logical conclusion. This is musical Mau-Mau.

Meanwhile, back in ‘darkest’ Notting Hill, not long after the riots, the intrepid reporter, T R Fyvel, was being enlightened by a youth leader about the increased use of ‘the gramophone’. Re-invented as ‘the record-player’, they were far cheaper than ever before, and cheap vinyl records were mass-produced for the first time, adding to the international popularity of performers like Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Bill Hayley and the Comets, and Cliff Richard and the Shadows. Although cheap, they were beyond the pockets of most individual teenagers or their families, for whom the TV was still a greater priority, so youth clubs like that run by Fyvel’s informant became a means of ‘putting a roof over the street’ under which young people could share the listening experience:  

Record-players are the thing these days among the boys. You just don’t find a house without one; they’re just about taking the place of the telly, expensive ones, too. Television seems to mean little to the youngsters these days – the only thing they bother to watch is boxing and football – but it’s remarkable how well they know the records. Even little girls at the club will ask if we’ve got the latest hit, “Babyface” or something. Tunes are the one subject where you can be sure of getting them to talk.   

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However, for some young Britons, epitomised by Jimmy Porter, the character in Osborne’s 1956 play, Look Back in Anger, it was pretty dreary living in the American age, unless you’re an American, of course. The cold, statistical reality was that the number of British youths in the age-group seventeen to twenty-one convicted for violence against the person had risen to 2,051 in 1958, from 745 in 1954. By 1958 this new development was also apparent to the legal authorities. For example, in London and the Home Counties one magistrate after the other made comment on the fact that the criminal minority among young people had become noticeably much larger and more criminal. This increase in crime statistics was most alarming in the smaller towns and rural areas in the Home Counties. Noting that crime in Berkshire had risen by a third in the course of two years, the Chief Constable of that still largely rural county said, on 9th April 1958, that the average age of those responsible for burglary and other breaking-in offences was under twenty. In neighbouring Buckinghamshire, the Chairman of the Quarter Sessions, Lord Birkett remarked:

There are thirty-six prisoners and of these there are no less than twenty-two who are twenty-one and under: among these, one is nineteen, two are eighteen, seven are seventeen, and five are only sixteen. Everyone reviews such a state of affairs with a profound taste of dissatisfaction, in these days when so much is done for the care and protection of the young.

It’s difficult to isolate specific causes of these social trends, but one general cause may have been that there were no good ’causes’ left for most young working-class people to fight for. John Osborne, the controversial playwright, expressed this sense of aimlessness through one of his characters, Jimmy Porter, in Look Back in Anger:

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

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Another cause of the increase in street-level violence and crime was the social alienation fuelled by the new vogue for high-rise flats, about which I have written in another post in this series. But, as the title of Osborne’s play reminds us, the fifties did see the rise of the Angry Young Men, and women, and led to the creation of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.  When the first ragged ranks of ‘CND’ swung into view on the first day of their march from London to Aldermaston in Berkshire, one Londoner, observing, commented to a radio reporter:

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

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René Cutforth, the distinguished radio commentator and journalist, however, thought that the marchers might just be the only people left alive. Certainly, the shadow of what Jimmy Porter had called ‘the big bang’ lengthened across the whole face of ‘affluent Britain’ throughout this whole thirty-year period from the late fifties onward, and nothing the bunch of bloody psychotics, including myself, did could raise it an inch. Yet the ‘extra-parliamentary politics’ which so changed the face of political life in the western world in the succeeding decades, and which so powerfully crystallised the popular mood of protest and dissent against the enforced calm of ‘prosperous Britain’, had its beginnings here: it was fired in this highly respectable and law-abiding crucible. 

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The importance assigned to the Commonwealth in the fifties prevented the imposition of immigration controls on New Commonwealth citizens. Only after Macmillan’s 1959 general election victory did pressure really begin to build up for some kind of restriction on immigration to Britain. Opinion polls began to show increasing hostility to the open-door policy. Perhaps just as important, both the Ministry of Labour and the Home Office wanted a change to help deal with the new threat of unemployment. This was a case of the political class being pushed reluctantly into something which offended the notion of their place in the world, the father-figures of a global Commonwealth. One study of immigration points out that what was truly remarkable was the passive acceptance by politicians and bureaucrats of Britain’s transformation into a multicultural society:

Immigration was restricted a full four years after all measures of the public mood indicated clear hostility to a black presence in Britain, and even then it was only done with hesitation. 

However, by the 1960s, Britain’s retreat from the Commonwealth in favour of Europe and events such as the Notting Hill race riots in 1958 heralded a policy of restriction, which gradually whittled away the right of New Commonwealth citizens to automatic British citizenship. When, in 1962, the Commonwealth Immigrants Act finally passed into law, it was notably liberal, at least by later standards, assuming the arrival of up to forty thousand legal immigrants a year with the complete right of entry for their dependents.

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Even so, it had only gone through after a ferocious parliamentary battle, with the Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell making an emotional appeal and passionate attacks on a measure which was still privately opposed by some of the Tory ministers opposite him. One particularly contentious issue was that the Republic of Ireland was allowed a completely open border with Britain, which exists to this day. This may have seemed only practical politics given the huge number of Irish people living and working in Britain, but it offended in two ways. By discriminating in favour of a country which had been neutral in the war with Hitler and declared itself a republic, but against Commonwealth countries which had stood with Britain, it infuriated many British patriots. Secondly, by giving Irish people a better deal than Indians or West Indians it seemed frankly racialist.

Although the 1962 Immigration Act was intended to reduce the inflow of blacks and Asians into Britain, it had the opposite effect. The new law created a quota system which gave preference to skilled workers and those with firm promises of employment. In order to beat it, a huge new influx of people migrated to Britain in 1961, the biggest group from the Caribbean, but also almost fifty thousand from India and Pakistan and twenty thousand Hong Kong Chinese. Fearful of losing the right of free entry, in the eighteen months before the restrictions were introduced, the volume of newcomers equalled the total for the previous five years. One historian of immigration puts the paradox well: in the three-year period from 1960 to 1963, despite the intense hostility to immigration, …

… more migrants had arrived in Britain than had disembarked in the whole of the twentieth century up to that point. The country would never be the same again.

Back to the Future: A New Relationship with Europe?

After the Treaty of Rome took effect at the beginning of 1958, French attitudes towards future British membership of the European Economic Community hardened. General de Gaulle, who had felt humiliated by Churchill during the war, returned as President of France, too late to stop the new European system, which he had opposed on the basis of his ‘nation-statism’, from taking shape. He, therefore, determined that it should be dominated by France and made to serve French national interests. Macmillan, always a keen European, became worried. Various British plots intended to limit the six founders and hamper their project had failed. London had tried to rival the new Common Market with a group of the ‘excluded’ countries; Britain, Austria, Denmark, Portugal, Norway, Switzerland and Sweden, calling it the European Free Trade Association (EFTA).

‘The Seven’ as they called themselves, were nevertheless smaller in population than ‘the Six’ and were also more geographically scattered and far less united. Roy Jenkins, future Home Secretary and ardent pro-European, described EFTA as a foolish attempt to organise a weak periphery against a strong core. By 1959 Macmillan was worrying that,

… for the first time since the Napoleonic era, the major continental powers are united in a positive economic grouping, with considerable political aspects …

… which might cut Britain out of Europe’s main markets and decisions. In his diaries, he wrote of his alarm at the prospect of a boastful, powerful ‘Empire of Charlemagne’ – now under French, but bound to come under German control. There was much self-deception about the possible deal that could be struck, which would need to combine the sovereignty of the British Parliament and the interests of farmers throughout the Commonwealth with the protectionist system of the EEC. Macmillan was willing to sacrifice sovereignty if a deal could be reached. He might have seemed as safely steeped in tradition as country houses, but he had nothing like the reverence for the House of Commons felt by Enoch Powell or Hugh Gaitskell. But Gaitskell and the Labour Party had seriously underrated Macmillan from the outset of his premiership. In his Memoirs (1964), the Earl of Kilmuir wrote of him:

His calm confidence, courtesy and sharpness in debate, his quick-wittedness under pressure, and, above all, his superb professionalism, unnerved and disconcerted his opponents until he secured a quite astonishing psychological superiority in the Commons. Gaitskell never quite succeeded in getting Macmillan’s measure, and his ponderous tactics gave the Prime Minister a series of opportunities which he did not miss…

He imparted confidence to his colleagues and the Party in Parliament, and their confidence spread to the constituencies. It was a remarkable example of how a political revival must start from the top. 

… Macmillan’s refusal to have an ‘inner Cabinet’ of a few intimate friends was a source of strength and not of weakness. Imperturbable, hard-working, approachable, and courageous; he exercised a personal domination over his colleagues not seen in British politics since Churchill’s wartime administration. If it is alleged that Macmillan was singularly lucky after 1958, no man deserved it more. He led the country out of the bitter-black aftermath of Suez, gave them the unflurried leadership for which they craved, and proved himself a worthy successor to Churchill.

In the early sixties, the battle over Britain’s sovereignty, which was to dominate its internal politics for the next sixty years, was postponed because British entry was ruthlessly and publicly blocked. President De Gaulle was due to come to Britain for talks and told the Prime Minister that, rather than visit Downing Street, he would prefer to come to his private home, Birch Grove in Sussex. The two men had worked closely together during the war in North Africa and De Gaulle was grateful to Macmillan personally for his support when, as leader of the Free French, Roosevelt and Churchill had wanted to kick him out of the French government-in-exile which was being formed in advance of liberation. However, De Gaulle had also left North Africa more than ever convinced of the danger to France of a coming Anglo-American alliance which would soon try to dominate the world.

Following a series of domestic disputes at Birch Grove, the two men exchanged blunt views. Macmillan argued that European civilization was threatened from all sides and that if Britain was not allowed to join the Common Market, he would have to review everything, including keeping British troops in Germany. If De Gaulle wanted an “empire of Charlemagne” it would be on its own. The French President replied that he didn’t want Britain to bring in its “great escort” of Commonwealth countries – the Canadians and Australians were no longer Europeans; Indian and African countries had no place in the European system, and he feared Europe being “drowned in the Atlantic”. In short, he simply did not believe that Britain would ditch its old empire; and if it did, he thought it would be a Trojan horse for the Americans.

These seem like formidable objections, points of principle that should have been as a clear warning. Yet the detailed and exhaustive talks about British entry dragged on despite them. Edward Heath made sixty-three visits to Brussels, Paris and other capitals, covering fifty thousand miles as he haggled and argued. By then Macmillan was a fast-fading figure. A natural intriguer who had risen to power on the bloodied back of Eden, he was obsessed by possible political coups against him, and increasingly worried about the state of the economy. He was failing in Europe and looked old when seen alongside the young President Kennedy. Even a master illusionist like Macmillan had to face political reality.

The illusion with the most profound consequences was the economic one. In his 1958 book, The Affluent Society, J K Galbraith intended to sketch an outline of a developed society which had in large part solved the problem of production and would concentrate its energies on the challenges of distribution and redistribution. The class struggle was obsolete, so also were the ideologies which sought to justify it. Politics would no longer involve large general choices but disagreement over more limited and piecemeal issues. Uncritical transference of Galbraith’s thesis into the British context helped obscure the fact that Britain had not, in fact, solved its economic problems. The optimism of the early 1950s was perfectly understandable, but this miracle was built on temporary and fortuitous circumstances.

From 1955, Britain was bedevilled by a series of sterling crises which gradually forced upon the attention of politicians problems they wished to avoid. In 1955, when, as a result of a Government-assisted boom in industrial development, demand began to run ahead of capacity and the economy became over-strained, R. A. Butler, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, deliberately pushed up by raising purchase tax on a wide range of goods, and at the same time a number of measures were taken to discourage capital investment. Butler’s policy was followed by his two successors at the Treasury and only reversed at the onset of the recession in 1958. By then, the policy had eventually succeeded in slowing down the pace of wage increases, one of the major factors behind the 1955 inflation. But it took nearly three years to do so, at the cost of a virtually complete standstill and a number of financial crises and major industrial disputes.

One particularly unfortunate aspect of this period was the Government’s attempts to restrict investment in the public sector, an attempt which was largely unsuccessful because of the long-term nature of most of the projects involved, which made it quite impossible to turn them on and off like a tap to meet the short-term fluctuations in the economy.  If, by the time he made his famous election speech in 1959, Macmillan’s illusion of continuing affluence was already unsupported by the economic evidence, by the time he gave his interview to the Daily Mail in 1961, the claim that… We’ve got it good: Let’s keep it good was well past its ‘sell-by date’. As Sked and Cook (1979) pointed out in their reflections on the ‘Thirteen Wasted Years’, the Tories had, in fact, done very little in their fiscal policies from 1951-64, to pay attention to Britain’s sluggish economic growth or the problems created by the country’s superficial prosperity:

  … the Government sat back and did nothing in the belief that there was nothing to do, and for most of the time their energy was devoted  to maintaining Britain as a world power whatever the cost to the economy … 

Moreover, Tory economic complacency ensured that the necessary economic growth would never be generated. Not enough money was channelled into key industries; stop-go policies undermined the confidence of industry to invest in the long-term, and too much money was spent on defence…

With the economic crises of the early 1960s … it began to be apparent that Tory affluence would soon come to an end. The scandals of the Macmillan era merely served to reinforce the impression that a watershed had been reached in the country’s history and foreign affairs seemed to reach another lesson…  

In 1962 US Secretary of State Dean Acheson said that Britain has lost an empire: she has not yet found a role. The failure to rethink her world role was as evident in diplomacy as in economics. Macmillan foresaw and expedited the final liquidation of Empire, but he had few ideas about what to put in its place. The special relationship with the United States was to remain the cornerstone of British policy. But without the Empire, the relationship was bound to become one of master and servant. These illusions blinded Macmillan to the far-reaching changes occurring in Europe.

After a further unpopular budget in the spring of 1962, Macmillan drafted an alternative policy based on more planning and decided to sack his Chancellor, Selwyn Lloyd. The news was leaked to the papers, and over a brutal and panicky twenty-four hours in July, Macmillan expanded the circle of his sackings more widely, in what became known as the Night of the Long Knives. Macmillan called in and dismissed a third of his cabinet ministers from their jobs without notice. Macmillan’s own official biographer described it as an act of carnage unprecedented in British political history. However, compared with more recent cabinet ‘re-shuffles’ which happen with far greater frequency, many of those sacked then deserved to lose their jobs.

In November, Macmillan returned to his arguments with De Gaulle. This time, he went to France, to the grand chateau of Rambouillet, south of Paris, a venue used by French Presidents for summits as well as for holidays. After a round of pheasant-shooting, de Gaulle expressed his objections to British EEC membership even more aggressively. If Britain wanted to choose Europe, it would have to cut its special ties with the United States. At one point, Macmillan broke down in tears of frustration at the General’s intransigence, leading de Gaulle to comment later to his cabinet:

This poor man , to whom I had nothing to give, seemed so sad, so beaten that I wanted to put my hand on his shoulder and say to him, as in the Edith Piaf song, “Ne pleurez pas, milord”.

Cruel or not, it was a significant moment for Macmillan, for the Tories and for Britain. When, a few months later, in early 1963, De Gaulle’s “Non” was abruptly announced in a Paris press conference, it caused huge offence in Britain. A visit to Paris by Princess Margaret was cancelled. At the England-France rugby international at Twickenham a few days later, England won six-five. The captain of the English team had assured Ted Heath, the failed negotiator, that he had had a word with the team before the game, telling them…

… this was an all-important game. Everyone knew what I meant and produced the necessary …

Macmillan himself bitterly recorded in his diary that the French always betray you in the end. 

 

Sources:

Theo Baker (ed., 1978), The Long March of Everyman. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Michael Clark & Peter Teed (eds., 1972), Portraits and Documents: The Twentieth Century, 1906-1960. London: Hutchinson Educational.

Richard Brown & Christopher Daniels (1982), Documents and Debates: Twentieth Century Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan Educational.

Asa Briggs, Joanna Bourke et. al. (eds., 2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Robert McCrum, William Cran & Robert MacNeil (1986), The Story of English. Harmonsworth: Penguin Books.

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

Britain Sixty Years Ago (V): With Love and Laughter.   Leave a comment

In mid-fifties’ Britain, political satire, exuberantly popular in Georgian times, now returned in full force with the advent of the new media of radio and TV. It also featured savage cartoons in the newspapers, staged lampoons and fortnightly mockery in the magazine Private Eye. Among the two million regular listeners to The Goon Show in the mid-fifties were key members of the next generation of comics, men like Jonathan Miller and Peter Cook. The Goons passed the baton to Beyond the Fringe, which passed it to Monty Python’s Flying Circus, from where it went to Little Britain. Each generation built on the humour of the previous one, changed it and then passed it on. Peter Cook, Spike Milligan’s only rival as the outstanding comic genius of his age, sent a schoolboy script to Milligan at the BBC which was good enough for him to be invited up to London for lunch. In turn, the group of comedians who became known as The Pythons were transfixed by Cook and his friends. In the decade that they grew up after the war, Britain was still dominated by the private schools, which were often bleak institutions. The austerity years meant little heating, poor food and few modern facilities, a life conditioned by brutal customs and petty hierarchies often dating back before the Edwardian years to the founding of many of the ‘public schools’ in mid-Victorian times.

Peter Cook’s school, Radley in Oxfordshire, still ’employed’ a régime  which deployed frequent beatings, cold showers, complicated dress codes, compulsory star-jumps, thumpings with hockey sticks for minor transgressions, and a great deal of other forms of bullying, all of which went undeterred by the staff. This forced bright but vulnerable children like Cook to develop mimickry and mockery to deflect bullies. He would make people laugh so that they wouldn’t hit him. Richard Ingrams, editor of Private Eye, attended Shrewsbury School, whose new boys were called ‘douls’ after the Greek for slave; its day started with cold baths; it too had a byzantine dress code, involving different colours of scarf, tie and waistcoat, and when the whole school was sent on cross-country runs, the boys were chased by men with whips. Ingram’s humour was less about mimickry and more about writing mock school magazines with Paul Foot, son of the Labour leader Michael, and Willie Rushton. In many ‘public-private’ schools, such as at John Cleese’s Clifton College in Bristol, boys developed underground languages to cope with their aggressive, closed communities. They knew little of women, which meant that the humour that emerged from them was often ridiculously naive about sex. They were rarely politically radical, since they were from a privileged élite. Cook’s father had been a colonial civil servant in Nigeria and Gibraltar. Ingrams was the son of an eccentric banker and intelligence agent, a one-time member of a pro-Nazi Anglo-German Fellowship Society, and a Catholic mother whose father had been doctor to Queen Victoria. Both men were brought up to look down on the working classes as essentially inferior and comic. Their satire was biting, with underlying layers of anger and hurt. But it would be very public schoolboyish as well, involving much juvenile tittering and snobbery.

The brightest of these ‘boys’ then went on to Cambridge or Oxford, still then mainly male societies, and where in those days there was a direct line from the world of Oxbridge student reviews, like The Cambridge Footlights to the West End theatres. Future satirists mingled with fellow students who would go on to become politicians and business leaders. Peter Cook’s generation at Cambridge in 1957 included the later Conservative cabinet ministers Michael Howard, Kenneth Clarke (just returned sixty years later as an MP and ‘father’ of the House of Commons) and Leon Brittan, as well as various actors and impresarios. Cook’s biographer, Harry Thompson, has pointed out that:

One reason has traditionally produced so many political satirists is that its undergraduates come face to face with their future political leaders at an early age, and realise then quite how many of them are social retards who join debating societies to find friends.

It could be added that the same could be said of those joining theatrical societies and satirical magazines. At Cambridge, Cook simply transferred his monotone sketches about the Radley School butler to his new environment and eventually had half the undergraduates mimicking him and repeating his one-liners. Cook found his voice as a schoolboy and maintained the same deadpan drawl at Cambridge to Edinburgh’s Beyond the Fringe review, to London, New York and global success. Similarly, Ingrams and Rushton transferred their jokes and cartoon characters to the pages of Private Eye. There were, of course, many other comics and satirists from other backgrounds, including Alan Bennett, the Yorkshire grammar school boy and Dudley Moore, the working-class boy from Dagenham who became the other half of the comedy duo with Peter Cook in the TV series Not only… but also… There was also David Frost, the son of a Methodist preacher from Kent. But it was the dominant personalities of Cook and Ingrams which gave them so strong a hold over the satire boom which began in the second half of the fifties. If Cook had any politics of his own, they were difficult to discern, and always took second place to a good punchline, though Fluck and Law, who went on to create the latex satirical puppetry of Spitting Image, were socialist friends of Cook. At the time of the satire boom itself, there was no organic link between the left of British politics and the wave of comedians, mimics and journalists who tore down the facade of Tory Britain towards the end of their thirteen years in power. There could not have been, since too many of the satirists were public schoolboys,  getting their revenge on the nation’s authority figures for the way they had been bullied. Macmillan for them was the image of the head of a decaying prep school, but Labour was also worthy of snobbish ridicule – full as it was with lower middle-class and working-class people with funny accents and petty, mundane concerns.

Ian Fleming was also a fine example of how the British society was tightly twisted at the top. He was yet another Etonian, and yet another character who flitted between journalism, intelligence and high society. From a Scottish banking family, he had tried Sandhurst, foreign correspondence – including in Stalin’s Moscow – and the City, before joining Naval Intelligence during the war. There his wild schemes for sabotage and dirty tricks were widely considered more fit for novels. After the war he ran a network of foreign correspondents and tried to work out ways of moving out of the dreary reality of austerity London. He eventually built a house in Jamaica, then still a colony, which he called Goldeneye. It was here that the Edens fled after the Suez Crisis to recuperate. In different ways, all these people, from Nöel Coward to the newspaper barons, Hugh Gaitskell to the Flemings, were struggling with time warp lives and challenged patriotism. Morals were becoming more fluid and new kinds of pleasure were seeping in. Gaitskell in particular was able to appreciate Fleming’s books, writing of the Bond books in the New Statesman that:

I am a confirmed Fleming fan – or should it be addict? The combination of sex, violence, alcohol and – at intervals – good food and nice clothes is, to one who lives such a circumscribed as I do, irresistable.

There’s probably no better testimony to the way in which the austerity years gave way to the affluent society. James Bond became one of the most successful if mildly ironic symbols of recovering British pride after Suez. From Russia, with Love, first published in Britain in April 1957, is the fifth novel by Fleming to feature his fictional British Secret Service agent. Fleming wrote the story in early 1956 at his Goldeneye estate in Jamaica; at the time he thought it might be his final Bond book. The novel deals with the East–West tensions of the Cold War, and the decline of British power and influence in the post-Second World War era.

Fleming’s sketch showing his concept of the James Bond character.

From Russia, with Love received broadly positive reviews at the time of publication. The book’s sales were boosted by an advertising campaign that played upon a visit by the British Prime Minister’s visit to Fleming’s Goldeneye estate. Fleming’s first work of non-fiction, The Diamond Smugglers, was also published in 1957 and was partly based on background research for his fourth Bond novel, Diamonds Are Forever. Much of the material had appeared in The Sunday Times and was based on Fleming’s interviews with John Collard, a member of the International Diamond Security Organisation who had previously worked in MI5. Even before they were transformed into the endless films, the novels provided a glorious fantasy for a nation in trouble, and in his earlier Bond stories Fleming worked to satisfy the almost pornographic lust of the British for the richer, more colourful consumer culture over the Atlantic. But though Fleming was a connected member of the élite, and had pictured his hero as an Old Etonian, it was a Scottish working-class body-builder, Sean Connery, who was chosen to play him in the first films. After that, Bond became, ironically, something of an outsider figure in the popular imagination, which perhaps helps to explain his endurance as a British cultural icon. Fleming’s original establishment character might not have appealed to a mass film audience in the more egalitarian atmosphere of the sixties.

Source:

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

 

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