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

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

The Brighton Bombing:

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

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

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

The Gorbachevs in London:

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

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


“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.


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.


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.


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?


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. 


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.


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:


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. 


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.


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.


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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The Language of History: Part One – Defining the Discourse   Leave a comment

The Language of History: Defining the Discourse

A ‘Preamble’ into Early Modern English:

While searching for reading material on historical discourse, I found a tract from Exeter Cathedral library, written by the antiquarian Howel in 1657, with an enchanting title; Londonopolis; an historical discourse or perlustration of the city of London… Interestingly, the verb to perlustrate means to traverse, survey… to go through and examine thoroughly (Webster’s Dictionary, 1981). The title thus reveals that the identification of the nature of historical discourse as that of surveying the past is by no means recent development. In addition, the use of ‘perlustration’ as a synonym for discourse suggests a close connection in the discipline between the need to investigate and narrate past events. These are regarded the two essential tools, or modes of discourse, to be used in the historical craft.

A British teacher researching into Dual Language Education in Budapest (Ryan: 1991) showed how a choice between these two modes resulted in what he defined as the lecture approach and the concept approach. In the first, the lesson is characterised by what Rod Ellis (1986: 176) called lockstep teaching, in which the teacher controls classroom communication through a series of elicitations of a closed kind or through lengthy informing moves and dominates quantitatively by assigning a large proportion of the talk to himself. Ryan adds that most Hungarian students expect this approach, treating history as a story told by teacher to students. In Hungary, teachers who pioneered the concept approach argued that the only way to ensure that students learnt the language of history in both Hungarian and English was to get them to talk about history. Ryan believed that it was not only possible but necessary to insert descriptive or explanatory concepts into any linear overview of a country’s history. This was precisely what happened in dual-language history teaching in Hungary in the early 1990s, resulting from a real and personalised philosophy among history teachers about their subject. Back in Exeter Cathedral library, I was interested to note how resonantly this view, one which I had also encountered in schools in Wales and more recently in France, seemed to echo that of Elizabethan writers, such as Thomas Blundervill (1574):

I can not tell whyther I may deryde, or rather pittie the great follie of those which having consumed all theyr lyfe tyme in hystories, doe knowe nothing in the ende, but the discents, genealoges, and petygrees of noble men, and when such a King or Emperour raigned, and such lyke stuffe, which knowledge though it be necessarie and meete to be observed, yet is not to be compared to the knowledge, that is, gotten by such observacions as we require, & be of greater importaunce: to the obtayning whereof, I wish all readers of Hystories, to employe theyr chiefest studie, care and diligence.

Blundervill’s second kind of knowledge, that which we might refer to today as the enquiry mode was, he considered, the essential means of enabling the reader of Hystories to gather judgement… as you may be the more able, as well to direct your private actions as to give Counsell lyke a most prudent Counsellor in publyke causes, be it matters of warre, or peace. Readers and observers of history need first to become masters and apprentices in the craft of perlustration, or investigation, to use a more familiar modern English word. By enquiring into past events, historical investigators also equip themselves to learn from such events, not simply about them.

Inter-cultural definitions: a comparative etymology

Interestingly, the Hungarian term ‘visszapillantás’, meaning an ‘historical survey or review’ (Országh, 1985), does not have the metaphorical idea of a study in depth, of a detailed survey or ‘perlustration’ going right down to the foundations of a building (Webster, 1981). It has the sense of a brief, summative overview of past events, with the prefix ‘vissza’ (back) definitely making the view a retrospective one. It does not suggest, necessarily, any connection between past, present and future.

Certainly, in its earliest uses, both in English and Hungarian, history, or ‘történelem’ (from ‘történet’, meaning ‘story’ or ‘tale’), was seen as a simple account of past events. However, the Greek root-word ‘istoria’ also had the early sense of an Inquiry (British English dated form, Cambridge International Dictionary of English, 1995). The sense of history has therefore always ranged from a ‘factual’ chronicle of past events to a narrative explanation of past events prompted by a more detailed inquiry.

Just as in Hungarian word ‘történet’ can be applied broadly to ‘fiction, fable and yarn’ (Országh, 1985), so too the English words story and history were used interchangeably to identify accounts of either imaginary events or of events supposed to be true, a usage which persists in literature and popular culture. However, from Blundervill’s time onwards, the uses of the two words diverged, with history being used to describe accounts of past real events, set down in writing, hence the use of ‘an historical discourse’ to introduce so many early modern tracts. The more generalised sense of history that Raymond Williams (1983: 146) referred to as ‘organised knowledge of the past’, was an extension of this. ‘Historian’, ‘historic’ and ‘historical’ follow mainly this generic sense, as they do in Hungarian.

This established sense of history is undoubtedly the predominant shared meaning both in English and Hungarian. However, in terms of both the discipline, or craft, and discourse, or language, of the subject, it is important to distinguish the sense of history that goes beyond a body of organised knowledge, ‘történelemtudomány’ in Hungarian (Országh, 1985) into the realms of interpretation and explanation of that shared body of knowledge. In simple terms, histories need to do more than simply chronicle or describe past events; they also need to explain them.

This sense is one that emerged with the Enlightenment and treats history as the explanation of human self-development, through a continuous process connecting past events with present and future outcomes. The various choices of interpretation within this process combine to make history a more abstract discipline than others within the Humanities. History, in this ‘modern’ sense, contains at least three competing interpretations of human development; the classic liberal interpretation of Civilisation; the philosophical (Hegelian) interpretation of a world-historical Spirit or Élan, and a more political interpretation of historic forces, originating in the French Revolution and developing with socialist, specifically Marxist political economy. Taking the last of these views first, recent rejections of all forms of historicism have also been at risk of jettisoning the more neutral method of studying the past by tracing precedents of current events. Marx himself, before the emergence of Marxism, stressed this as being part of his approach to history:

Events strikingly similar, but occurring in a different historical milieu, lead to completely dissimilar results. By studying each of these evolutions separately and then comparing them, it is easy to find the key to the understanding of the phenomenon; but it is never possible to arrive at this understanding by using the passe-partout of some historical-philosophical theory whose great virtue is to stand above history.

(Quoted in Carr, 1987: 65).

By rejecting all attempts to produce over-arching philosophies of history, much recent historiography has tended to lead to rather cynical views of past events as chapters of accidents, and tales with little significance for understanding the present. As the somewhat out-of-fashion Hungarian writer Lukács (1962, quoted in Carr, 1987: 66) pointed out, there is a danger, even in a lighter vein, of retrospectively reducing the study of history itself to ‘a collection of exotic anecdotes’. Although such anecdotes certainly have their place, often berated or underrated, in historical narrative, they do not justify its status as a major academic discipline.

A further linguistic dichotomy can be seen by looking briefly at adjectival forms connected with history as a discourse. In English, while ‘historical’ belongs mainly to language about the past, e.g. ‘historical characters’, ‘historic’ is more often used to describe present events and processes, which whilst having their origins in the past, relate more to the future within an overall sense of destiny, e.g. ‘historic forces’, ‘historic moment’ (for which we could substitute the common adjective momentous). As Raymond Williams (1976: 148) pointed out, the generic noun ‘itself retains its whole range, and still, in different hands, teaches or shows us most kinds of knowable past and almost every kind of imaginable future’.

The main point to extract from these definitions, for the purpose of doing history, is that the language of history will be more or less abstract, depending on which philosophy is applied to the subject. Whilst there are five ‘keywords’, based on the Greek root, used to define the study of the past in English – history, historiography, historic, historical, historicism – Hungarian uses at least ten key words or phrases which, through suffixation, convey more precisely the shades of meaning in the continuum from story to inquiry, and from chronicle to narrative.

However, the essential stem is still story, ‘történet’, and it is this sense of history which persists and predominates in Hungarian consciousness, the sense of an inherited shared story, often strongly linked to a notion of national heritage. This story is capable of interpretation and reinterpretation, according to current predominant political philosophy, but this, of itself, does not make it a legitimate historical inquiry or scientific survey. Making or re-making history, mythologizing or re-mythologizing it in order to make it conform to a sense of national destiny does not equate to doing history, any more than following crude historicist models enables us to do justice to the collective memory of the Hungarian people, or any other people for that matter.

The re-mythologizing of Hungary’s past is most evident to guests in the plethora of memorials that have sprung up in recent years both in its capital, and in its provincial towns such as Kecskemét, where eighty per cent of the current population lives. In the town centre, next to the Town Hall, is a memorial to the crown territories lost by Hungary as a result of the Treaty of Trianon in 1921, as a part of the Paris Peace Settlement following the First World War. It takes the form of a huge stone map, with the current geographical form of the Hungary laid over the Big Hungary, or Greater Hungary, three times the size of the present-day country. It is a map of Hungary as it never was, or as it was ‘in a way’, or as some Hungarians would like it to be. The shape of ‘Nagy Magyarország’ is for them one which they stick to the back bumper of their car. It refers to the borders of the Austro-Hungarian Empire when Hungary was part of the Dual Monarchy from 1867-1918. This Hungary therefore never really existed in reality, because it never had these borders as an independent country, but only as part of an Austria-Hungary in which the Austrians were the top dogs, with the Hapsburgs as rulers.



Above: Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia (scale 1: 4,500,000) in c.1930

This fictional or mythological map of Hungary is based on the borders of Austria-Hungary as shown in Atlas maps, like those above, from before the First World War and after. Books published in Hungarian from the time of the Trianon onwards, refer to the Treaty as an act of betrayal, or treason. They provide examples of the language of interpretation. The maps showing the boundaries as they were before 1914 and then after Trianon show us the facts of the matter, but these facts are then subject to interpretation. Whilst it is true that Hungary lost two-thirds of its land and a third of its pre-war Magyar population, but whether it ever had a right to those areas of modern-day Croatia and other parts of the former Austrian Empire is debatable. Yet today, there are many Hungarians who still believe in a nationalist narrative that would like to see Hungarians living outside the current borders of the country returned to their native nationality and state. This brings it into continual conflict with the surrounding Slavic states about the treatment of the minority Magyars in their countries. All this is part of a modern-day nationalist narrative, based mostly on interpretations of Trianon and not always on the basic factual material, or chronicle, of the events pre-dating and surrounding the Trianon Story.

The problem arising from this approach to interpreting the events of the past is that it is the shifting sands of these interpretations, rather than the bedrock of solid evidence, which end up being set, not simply in text, but in symbolic tablets of dead stone monuments. A real historical narrative, the diamond in the rough, can only be exposed through the hard labour of chipping away at the stone which helped to form it through the pressure of real causes and catalysts, the relevance and purpose of which are not always apparent, often falling discarded in order to reveal the essential core of the gem, the narrative.

Humanistic principles and perspectives therefore apply especially to studying History, which does not have its own technical language, but does require the development of abilities to enquire into, to discuss, to debate and to narrate past events. Whilst rules of evidence and scientific objectivity have their place in guarding against the dangers of over-interpretation and mythologization of the past, an approach which becomes overly dependent on them is no more helpful than to understanding the past than the one which concentrated on facts, facts, facts, in Victorian times.

More recent philosophies of history, formed in relation to linguistics, reaffirm the usefulness of narrative tools in crafting histories, asserting as they do that stories about the past are created by historians through interpretation, rather than having a life of their own. This understanding of history as a narrative discourse with the people of the past people is of primary importance to the task of interpreting their stories, and therefore deserves further investigation.

Definitions of Discourse and The Historian’s Craft

In general modern English usage the word discourse refers to formal communication in speech or writing (Cambridge International Dictionary, 1995). In linguistic terms, it refers to ‘larger units of language such as paragraphs, conversations, and interviews’ (Richards, Platt and Platt, 1992: 111). The word can be translated by at least three words in Hungarian the noun ‘értekezés’ usually refers to a formal piece of writing on a particular, serious subject, whereas ‘eszmecsere’ refers to the semi-formal talk/ interchange of ideas, a dialogue perhaps. The noun ‘társalgás’ is used to refer to informal conversation or ‘chats’ on particular topics.

Historical discourse is characterised fundamentally by its dependence on written forms in both primary and secondary sources. In this sense, the important distinction for the historian is not to be drawn so much between spoken and written forms of discourse, but between formal ‘acts’ of narration and interpretation, whether these are conveyed in writing, in a dissertation or essay, or in speaking, through a lecture, seminar or presentation, involving dialogue and discussion. Such events clearly need distinguishing from less formal conversation and talks. In other words, we need to examine the distinctive register and style of language used in historical communication, whether spoken or written. It is in this sense that I use the term ‘historical discourse’ to indicate the use of language involved in any serious study of the past, though not necessarily only those undertaken by professional historians. Indeed, the fact that the vocabulary used is indistinct from that used in Standard English make it a craft that engages many educated individuals with the motivation to investigate the past, provided they have the right tools and know how to use them.

Dialogues between Present and Past: Historiographical debate 

Although E.H.Carr’s (1987) widely-read and therefore influential work, ‘What is History?’, was originally ‘delivered’ as a series of lectures in 1961, Carr’s work is still worth reading as a starting point for any discussion on the discourse of history, because it contains many interesting and useful insights into the relationship between history and language. His answer to his own question helps us to move towards a view of history as a distinctive discourse:

The historian is of his own age, and is bound to it by the conditions of human existence…the very words he uses – words like democracy, empire, war, revolution – have current connotations from which he cannot divorce them. Ancient historians have taken to using words like ‘polis’ and ‘plebs’…this does not help them. They, too, live in the present …the historian is obliged to choose…the use of language forbids him to be neutral… History, then, in both senses of the word – meaning both the inquiry conducted by the historian and the facts of the past into which he inquires – is a social process in which individuals are engaged as social beings. The reciprocal process of interaction between the historian and his facts…the dialogue between present and past, is a dialogue not between abstract and isolated individuals, but between the society of today and the society of yesterday.

(Carr, 1987: 24-25, 30, 55).

The idea of historical discourse as a dialogue between the historian as a contemporary social being and the society of yesterday is one which is worth pursuing, particularly in the light of Carr’s suggestion that past peoples are not simply passive objects for historians but are somehow actively engaged in metaphorical conversations with them.

More recent writers on the nature of historical discourse (White, 1978, 1987; Jenkins, 1995) have taken up this theme; at the same time criticising Carr for his advocacy of history as a social science. There are major differences in the types of language that the historian uses to approach the past from those used by a physical scientist. Lecturing on objectivity in history, Carr himself pointed to the complexity of the discourse and called for a new model of historical understanding. In the post-modern era, something approaching this new model has been worked out, based on a linguistic approach, making particular use of discourse analysis.

Towards a new model of historical discourse: The Metahistorical.

The basis for this new model can be found, originally, in the work of Hayden White (1978, 1987). A more recent survey and summary of his complex and extensive work has been made by Keith Jenkins (1995). White himself built on the work of Richard Rorty, who was concerned to bring about the collapse of boundaries between discourses and to enable them to engage in the construction of meaning and the problems of representation (Jenkins, 1995: 4). What certainly has collapsed is what Jenkins refers to as ‘history in the upper case’, the classical liberal view that we have already touched on. This is sometimes referred to as the ‘Whig’ view of history, of which Jenkins remarks that nobody really believes that particular fantasy any more.

The new model philosophers of history point out that no discourse simply grows organically, spontaneously, without nurture or cultivation. In this case, historians cultivate their field and construct accounts of the past that can be circumscribed by the term historiography. For White, therefore, the historical work is a verbal artefact, a narrative prose discourse, the content of which is as much invented – or as much imagined – as found (Jenkins, 1995: 18-19). Consequently, all historical accounts are ultimately metaphorical and therefore metahistorical. People in the past did not deliberately live their lives as stories, so to see them in story form is to give an imaginary series of narrative structures and coherence to the past that, in reality, it never had. Therefore, we must be careful not to mistake the historian’s narrative of the past as the past’s own form; the story emerges from the historian’s interpretation of past events as recorded in texts and other traces surviving from the past.

At their most explicit, these texts and traces were consciously recorded in chronicle form e.g. in diaries. It is mainly the historian’s consciousness that transforms them into a meaningful, public narrative. In this sense, Jenkins defines the writing of history, historiography, as an act of translation, a carrying over of meanings from one discursive community to another (Ibid.: 24).

In a language-based conception of this process, the extreme textualist view would be that there is no historical reality outside that created by the historian. This view would lead to the dissolution of history as a subject since if texts are seen as reflecting other texts and not reality, historical study cannot be distinguished from literary study, and the past dissolves into literature. However, White does not go this far, arguing that:

Historical events…are events which really happened or are believed really to have happened, but which are no longer directly accessible to perception. As such, in order to be constituted as objects of reflection, they must be described…in some kind of natural or technical language…The description is a product of processes of linguistic condensation, displacement, symbolisation and secondary revision of the kind that inform the production of texts. On this basis alone, one is justified in speaking of history as a text…

 (White: 1989, quoted in Jenkins, 1995: 32).

This statement does not necessarily contradict other statements already examined about the nature of history; what it does is to provide a definition that serves rather than dominates the methodological purposes of the study of the past. Jenkins’ sets out the four key principles b of the textualist position as follows:

  • All accounts of the past (and the present) come to us textually through some kind of natural or technical language – we might equate ‘text’ in this sense with the historian’s use of ‘source’, whether in spoken or written discourse, or in the form of an artifact or other ‘trace’ of the past;

  • The past cannot express itself – it always needs to be spoken for and constructed. The historian distinguishes between what is historical and what is not and between what is significant, or historic, and what is not;

  • Whether history is considered simply as the past, the documentary record of this past, or the body of reliable information about the past, there is no such thing as a distinctively historical method by which to study it;

  • Historians, whether professional or otherwise, cannot define history as resting on foundations that go beyond textual reality and discourse.

(Jenkins, 1995: 34)

The historian’s sense of a dialogue with the past means that they are able to develop their historiography more in terms of its rhetorical and conversationalist style of discourse, rather than approaching their craft as a narrow academic code or discipline. This should help them to demystify the subject for their apprentices. Brenda Marshall has recently (1992) expressed this transformation in the following terms:

History in the post-modern moment becomes histories and questions. It asks: Whose history gets told? In whose name? For what purpose? … Histories forgotten, hidden, invisible, considered unimportant, changed, eradicated. It’s about the refusal to see history as linear, as leading straight up to today in some recognisable pattern – all set for us to make sense of. It’s about chance. It’s about power. It’s about information…

With this approach, teachers and learners can feel liberated to construct their own texts free from the constraints of orthodoxy and ideology, and in their own terms. Similarly, White has no time for those who define history in neat, constricting terms. He is more concerned with freeing up history to be whatever we want it to be, linked not just with views of the past, but also with visions of the future. However, when pushed, he answers Carr’s question with the answer that it is a narrative discourse, but one which can never quite grasp the past in this form. Reinstating language in the centre of the subject, as opposed to the application of rules of evidence to the historical record, he argues for a re-emphasis on the rhetorical.

(Jenkins, 1995: 140-1).

History as explanation

White’s theory of historical narrative is one which helps both the professional and apprentice historian to process the past, beginning with the relatively unprocessed historical record (archives, relics, records) in order to provide data on which a chronicle can be based and, through further interpretation, a story formed, which may finally be contextualised into a narrative. Historians work from their own narrative, prefiguring and surveying the historical field to discover the primitive elements of the historical record, which they then fashion into historical accounts. To produce an account from the primitive elements, traces or sources of the past, historians use three types of explanation:

  • Explanation by argument; making a choice between an integrative argument, seeking to integrate different aspects, through identified principles, into a macro-theoretical process, and a dispersive argument, depicting the variety and uniqueness of events;

  • Explanation by emplotment; the fashioning of a sequence of events into a narrative of a particular kind, chosen from the literary forms of romance, tragedy, comedy and satire providing the main modes which convey the myths endowing human processes with meaning;

  • Explanation by ideology; the commitment to a form of knowledge leading to generalisations about the past, chosen from conservative, liberal, radical and anarchist perspectives.

Forms of historical language

In addition, and perhaps most importantly in terms of developing a new model of historical discourse, White borrows from modern linguists and literary theorists to argue that this discourse contains four turns of phrase, or figures of speech:

  • Metaphor;

  • Metonymy; i.e. using the name of one thing to stand for that of something else with which it is associated, e.g. ‘lands belonging to the crown’ or ‘demanded action of the City Hall’.

  • Synecdoche; i.e. making the part stand for the whole (‘fifty sails’ for ‘fifty ships’), or the whole stand for the parts (creature for person).

  • Irony.

We can make use of these in our investigation into historical language by referring to them generically as figurative forms in order to distinguish them from the three forms of metalanguage, which we might summarise as follows:

  • Key historical concepts, which are widely-shared, applied broadly and sometimes controversially as a means of referring to past events, e.g. Revolution;

  • Archaisms, which are usages of language in past texts that are not usually encountered in present Standard English texts;

  • Historical terms, which are generally recognised expressions referring to events, movements etc. They were used contemporaneously and have remained in usage, e.g. Luddite (Cook: 1998).

Thus, historical discourse employs specific literary metalanguage, together with the use of key concepts, terms, and the interpretation of archaic language.

Chronicles and Narratives: Metalanguage and meaning

Exploring historical metalanguage also helps to distinguish stories and narratives from chronicles. Whilst chronicles are chronological arrangements of events and people, which may or may not follow a particular theme, in stories these events are organised into a process of happening with a beginning, middle and end. In a story, events are given a hierarchy of significance, so that the sequence of events is related to social and cultural processes, with some elements in the story receiving more emphasis than others, as in the following chart (capitals indicate significance):

Fig.   Hierarchy of significance

  1. A b c d e ……   A is the ‘explanatory factor’

  2. a B c d e ……   B ……………………………………..

  3. a b C d e ……   C ……………………………………..

  4. a b c D e ……   D ……………………………………..

  5. a b c d E ……   All facts can be seen as leading up to E                                                                                                                                                      

Present meanings and Past tenses

Thus, if historians simply recorded the facts as they found them in the traces of the past, they would merely be chroniclers. In simple linguistic terms, they would need (in English) only the past simple tense to describe a sequence of random, unrelated events, rather like in the keeping of a Journal or Diary. However, there is a distinction to be drawn between the grammar of past tenses and the semantics of the past. Historians find the simple chronicle of the past, but they provide it with the semantics; its meaning, its significance. Historians of the Dark Ages in Britain will not simply follow the order of events set out in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, nor will they accept unquestioningly the significance given to some events compared with others given by the contemporary chronicler. In changing such priorities between past chronicler and present narrator, they frequently (unconsciously or subliminally) also need to change the tense structures relating past events. For instance, in line 1 above ‘A’ may be represented by the past simple as the main explanatory factor. However, in line 2, where it is not the main explanatory factor, but is an event that occurred in previous chronological order, it might well be related to the main event through the use of the past perfect.

Figurative language and discourse

Since history has no generally accepted technical language, the historians have to use the techniques of figurative language and discourse, in which the four turns of phrase are set.   They recognise that there is a fictitious element in all-historical narrative. They are able to find in the theory of language and narrative itself the basis for a more subtle presentation of what historiography consists of than one which simply tells the apprentice historian to go away and find the facts and then write them up in such a way as to tell what really happened (White, 1978: 99).

Figuring out the chronicle into a story raises questions such as what happened next? and how did it all come about in the end? Questions such as what does it all add up to? or what’s the point of it all? have to do with the structure of the entire sequence of events considered as a completed story and call for a synopsis with other stories that might be found in the chronicle. White therefore uses a linguistic theory, the theory of tropes, to underpin his argument that history is a craft, not a science, having specific techniques but no technical terminology. Indeed, a quick survey of a dictionary of historical terms (Cook, 1998) reveals that there is no discrete lexis, syntax or grammar, as is the contrasting case with, say, Physics and Chemistry.

The historian makes the past familiar through abstract language, closely related to ordinary educated language, in which tropes are the figures of speech used to figure things out (White, 1978: 94). As in ordinary speech, for example, rhetorical questions are what the historian often starts an inquiry with, and they then dominate the ultimate narrative. In this sense, they prefigure the narrative. After all, past events cannot figure themselves out, so historians identify and describe subjects in the past, thus making them objects by their use of language. The figuring out is then done through various modes of explanation by argument, emplotment and ideology, referred to above, so that, in both senses of the word, figurative language works to relate past events to each other and to the present.

Configuring the past: some examples

Some brief contextual exemplification of these figures of speech is necessary here. The phrase ‘the saviours of humanity – the working class’ may convey the idea that the working class represents qualities of human dignity. However, the essence of humanity is not taken to be identical to the working class (synecdoche), nor is there any implicit negation of the explicit (irony). Therefore, it is a metaphorical, or representational statement. An example of metonymy would be the reduction of individual acts of resistance to colonialism as giving meaning to third world nationalism. Synecdoche is figuring out in the opposite direction, from whole to parts, e.g. ‘all history is the history of class struggle’ (Marx and Engels, 1848). In this case, each and every act of class struggle is treated as particular expressions of the general and a whole-part relationship will always be found and imposed. In irony, the statement about the working class above could be delivered or written in a certain way in order to convey the opposite of its apparent representational meaning.

Through metaphorical language, therefore, historians intervene in the past and invent history, introducing their own fictional interpretation to the arrangement of the facts. Historical problems are ones which historians both create and solve. In identifying problems, they configure the past, constituting the concepts which are used to identify and explain the evidence, itself produced from the traces of the past. A commitment to a particular mode of discourse in this process is what accounts for different interpretations of the past. The process can therefore be summarised for students in the following ten-fold sequence, modified and simplified from White (1978):

  1. The field of inquiry is located with reference to the traces of the actual past (archives, sites) and choice of period;

  2. The evidence is extracted according to an ideological interpretation which defines a question or problem in relation to it;

  3. This interpretation interacts with figurative forms of discourse, e.g. metaphor;

  4. The plot is chosen, from literary styles e.g. comedy, tragedy (emplotment);

  5. The main theme, or argument, is developed from and through the plot (explanation);

  6. The traces are worked up into a chronicle, a ‘time-line’ of events;

  7. A story form emerges which is interpretative, answering the questions set at the beginning of the inquiry;

  8. The story is transformed into a narrative, based on the evidence but related, through imaginative configuration, to both current and historic cultural forms and myths (e.g. ‘Albion – the Island Nation’, ‘Hungary – under the heel’);

  9. The narrative becomes an intelligible, consumable artifact, a secondary source;

  10. The product is itself processed, the consumers being its readers.

This approach is useful to historians and their apprentices in two ways; it assists them to think critically about accounts of past events, and it shows them how the discourse works. The emphasis on figurative language as the core of the subject helps to identify key discourse markers for further research. Moreover, the assertion that written historical texts are closely related to ‘ordinary educated speech’ lends justification to an examination of oral discourse as well as written text. However, rather than prescribing forms of historical discourse for identification, there is much to be said for the investigator following an ethnographic approach, describing past peoples and societies as much as possible in, and on, their own terms.


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