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You Only Live Twice – Cool Britannia to Cold Brexit: The United Kingdom, 1999-2019. Part One: Economics, Culture & Society.   Leave a comment

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Cold Shoulder or Warm Handshake?

On 29 March 2019, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland will leave the European Union after forty-six years of membership, since it joined the European Economic Community on 1 January 1973 on the same day and hour as the Republic of Ireland. Yet in 1999, it looked as if the long-standing debate over Britain’s membership had been resolved. The Maastricht Treaty establishing the European Union had been signed by all the member states of the preceding European Community in February 1992 and was succeeded by a further treaty, signed in Amsterdam in 1999. What, then, has happened in the space of twenty years to so fundamentally change the ‘settled’ view of the British Parliament and people, bearing in mind that both Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU, while England and Wales both voted to leave? At the time of writing, the manner of our going has not yet been determined, but the invocation of ‘article fifty’ by the Westminster Parliament and the UK government means that the date has been set. So either we will have to leave without a deal, turning a cold shoulder to our erstwhile friends and allies on the continent, or we will finally ratify the deal agreed between the EU Commission, on behalf of the twenty-seven remaining member states, and leave with a warm handshake and most of our trading and cultural relations intact.

As yet, the possibility of a second referendum – or third, if we take into account the 1975 referendum, called by Harold Wilson (above) which was also a binary leave/ remain decision – seems remote. In any event, it is quite likely that the result would be the same and would kill off any opportunity of the UK returning to EU membership for at least another generation. As Ian Fleming’s James Bond tells us, ‘you only live twice’. That certainly seems to be the mood in Brussels too. I was too young to vote in 1975 by just five days, and another membership referendum would be unlikely to occur in my lifetime. So much has been said about following ‘the will of the people’, or at least 52% of them, that it would be a foolish government, in an age of rampant populism, that chose to revoke article fifty, even if Westminster voted for this. At the same time, and in that same populist age, we know from recent experience that in politics and international relations, nothing is inevitable…

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One of the major factors in the 2016 Referendum Campaign was the country’s public spending priorities, compared with those of the European Union. The ‘Leave’ campaign sent a double-decker bus around England stating that by ending the UK’s payments into the EU, more than 350 million pounds per week could be redirected to the National Health Service (NHS).

A British Icon Revived – The NHS under New Labour:

To understand the power of this statement, it is important to recognise that the NHS is unique in Europe in that it is wholly funded from direct taxation, and not via National Insurance, as in many other European countries. As a service created in 1948 to be ‘free at the point of delivery’, it is seen as a ‘British icon’ and funding has been a central issue in national election campaigns since 2001, when Tony Blair was confronted by an irate voter, Sharon Storer, outside a hospital. In its first election manifesto of 1997, ‘New Labour’ promised to safeguard the basic principles of the NHS, which we founded. The ‘we’ here was the post-war Labour government, whose socialist Health Minister, Aneurin Bevan, had established the service in the teeth of considerable opposition from within both parliament and the medical profession. ‘New Labour’ protested that under the Tories there had been fifty thousand fewer nurses but a rise of no fewer than twenty thousand managers – red tape which Labour would pull away and burn. Though critical of the internal markets the Tories had introduced, Blair promised to keep a split between those who commissioned health services and those who provided them.

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Under Frank Dobson, Labour’s new Health Secretary, there was little reform of the NHS but there was, year by year, just enough extra money to stave off the winter crises. But then a series of tragic individual cases hit the headlines, and one of them came from a Labour peer and well-known medical scientist and fertility expert, Professor Robert Winston, who was greatly admired by Tony Blair. He launched a furious denunciation of the government over the treatment of his elderly mother. Far from upholding the NHS’s iconic status, Winston said that Britain’s health service was the worst in Europe and was getting worse under the New Labour government, which was being deceitful about the true picture. Labour’s polling on the issue showed that Winston was, in general terms, correct in his assessment in the view of the country as a whole. In January 2000, therefore, Blair announced directly to it that he would bring Britain’s health spending up to the European average within five years. That was a huge promise because it meant spending a third as much again in real terms, and his ‘prudent’ Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, was unhappy that Blair had not spoken enough on television about the need for health service reform to accompany the money, and had also ‘stolen’ his budget announcements. On Budget day itself, Brown announced that until 2004 health spending would rise at above six per cent beyond inflation every year, …

… by far the largest sustained increase in NHS funding in any period in its fifty-year history … half as much again for health care for every family in this country.       

The tilt away from Brown’s sharp spending controls during the first three years of the New Labour government had begun by the first spring of the new millennium, and there was more to come. With a general election looming in 2001, Brown also announced a review of the NHS and its future by a former banker. As soon as the election was over, broad hints about necessary tax rises were dropped. When the Wanless Report was finally published, it confirmed much that the winter crisis of 1999-2000 had exposed. The NHS was not, whatever Britons fondly believed, better than health systems in other developed countries, and it needed a lot more money. ‘Wanless’ also rejected a radical change in funding, such as a switch to insurance-based or semi-private health care. Brown immediately used this as objective proof that taxes had to rise in order to save the NHS. In his next budget of 2002, Brown broke with a political convention that which had reigned since the mid-eighties, that direct taxes would not be raised again. He raised a special one per cent national insurance levy, equivalent to a penny on income tax, to fund the huge reinvestment in Britain’s health.

Public spending shot up with this commitment and, in some ways, it paid off, since by 2006 there were around 300,000 extra NHS staff compared to 1997. That included more than ten thousand extra senior hospital doctors (about a quarter more) and 85,000 more nurses. But there were also nearly forty thousand managers, twice as many as Blair and Brown had ridiculed the Tory government for hiring. An ambitious computer project for the whole NHS became an expensive catastrophe. Meanwhile, the health service budget rose from thirty-seven billion to more than ninety-two billion a year. But the investment produced results, with waiting lists, a source of great public anger from the mid-nineties, falling by 200,000. By 2005, Blair was able to talk of the best waiting list figures since 1988. Hardly anyone was left waiting for an inpatient appointment for more than six months. Death rates from cancer for people under the age of seventy-five fell by 15.7 per cent between 1996 and 2006 and death rates from heart disease fell by just under thirty-six per cent. Meanwhile, the public finance initiative meant that new hospitals were being built around the country. But, unfortunately for New Labour, that was not the whole story of the Health Service under their stewardship. As Andrew Marr has attested,

…’Czars’, quangos, agencies, commissions, access teams and planners hunched over the NHS as Whitehall, having promised to devolve power, now imposed a new round of mind-dazing control.

By the autumn of 2004 hospitals were subject to more than a hundred inspections. War broke out between Brown and the Treasury and the ‘Blairite’ Health Secretary, Alan Milburn, about the basic principles of running the hospitals. Milburn wanted more competition between them, but Brown didn’t see how this was possible when most people had only one major local hospital. Polling suggested that he was making a popular point. Most people simply wanted better hospitals, not more choice. A truce was eventually declared with the establishment of a small number of independent, ‘foundation’ hospitals. By the 2005 general election, Michael Howard’s Conservatives were attacking Labour for wasting money and allowing people’s lives to be put at risk in dirty, badly run hospitals. Just like Labour once had, they were promising to cut bureaucracy and the number of organisations within the NHS. By the summer of 2006, despite the huge injection of funds, the Service was facing a cash crisis. Although the shortfall was not huge as a percentage of the total budget, trusts in some of the most vulnerable parts of the country were on the edge of bankruptcy, from Hartlepool to Cornwall and across to London. Throughout Britain, seven thousand jobs had gone and the Royal College of Nursing, the professional association to which most nurses belonged, was predicting thirteen thousand more would go soon. Many newly and expensively qualified doctors and even specialist consultants could not find work. It seemed that wage costs, expensive new drugs, poor management and the money poured into endless bureaucratic reforms had resulted in a still inadequate service. Bupa, the leading private operator, had been covering some 2.3 million people in 1999. Six years later, the figure was more than eight million. This partly reflected greater affluence, but it was also hardly a resounding vote of confidence in Labour’s management of the NHS.

Public Spending, Declining Regions & Economic Development:

As public spending had begun to flow during the second Blair administration, vast amounts of money had gone in pay rises, new bureaucracies and on bills for outside consultants. Ministries had been unused to spending again, after the initial period of ‘prudence’, and did not always do it well. Brown and his Treasury team resorted to double and triple counting of early spending increases in order to give the impression they were doing more for hospitals, schools and transport than they actually could. As Marr has pointed out, …

… In trying to achieve better policing, more effective planning, healthier school food, prettier town centres and a hundred other hopes, the centre of government ordered and cajoled, hassled and harangued, always high-minded, always speaking for ‘the people’.  

The railways, after yet another disaster, were shaken up again. In very controversial circumstances Railtrack, the once-profitable monopoly company operating the lines, was driven to bankruptcy and a new system of Whitehall control was imposed. At one point, Tony Blair boasted of having five hundred targets for the public sector. Parish councils, small businesses and charities found that they were loaded with directives. Schools and hospitals had many more. Marr has commented, …

The interference was always well-meant but it clogged up the arteries of free decision-taking and frustrated responsible public life. 

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Throughout the New Labour years, with steady growth and low inflation, most of the country grew richer. Growth since 1997, at 2.8 per cent per year, was above the post-war average, GDP per head was above that of France and Germany and the country had the second lowest jobless figures in the EU. The number of people in work increased by 2.4 million. Incomes grew, in real terms, by about a fifth. Pensions were in trouble, but house price inflation soured, so the owners found their properties more than doubling in value and came to think of themselves as prosperous. By 2006 analysts were assessing the disposable wealth of the British at forty thousand pounds per household. However, the wealth was not spread geographically, averaging sixty-eight thousand in the south-east of England, but a little over thirty thousand in Wales and north-east England (see map above). But even in the historically poorer parts of the UK house prices had risen fast, so much so that government plans to bulldoze worthless northern terraces had to be abandoned when they started to regain value. Cheap mortgages, easy borrowing and high property prices meant that millions of people felt far better off, despite the overall rise in the tax burden. Cheap air travel gave the British opportunities for easy travel both to traditional resorts and also to every part of the European continent. British expatriates were able to buy properties across the French countryside and in southern Spain. Some even began to commute weekly to jobs in London or Manchester from Mediterranean villas, and regional airports boomed as a result.

Sir Tim Berners Lee arriving at the Guildhall to receive the Honorary Freedom of the City of LondonThe internet, also known as the ‘World-Wide Web’, which was ‘invented’ by the British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee at the end of 1989 (pictured right in 2014), was advancing from the colleges and institutions into everyday life by the mid- ‘noughties’. It first began to attract popular interest in the mid-nineties: Britain’s first internet café and magazine, reviewing a few hundred early websites, were both launched in 1994. The following year saw the beginning of internet shopping as a major pastime, with both ‘eBay’ and ‘Amazon’ arriving, though to begin with they only attracted tiny numbers of people.

But the introduction of new forms of mail-order and ‘click and collect’ shopping quickly attracted significant adherents from different ‘demographics’.  The growth of the internet led to a feeling of optimism, despite warnings that the whole digital world would collapse because of the inability of computers to cope with the last two digits in the year ‘2000’, which were taken seriously at the time. In fact, the ‘dot-com’ bubble was burst by its own excessive expansion, as with any bubble, and following a pause and a lot of ruined dreams, the ‘new economy’ roared on again. By 2000, according to the Office of National Statistics (ONS), around forty per cent of Britons had accessed the internet at some time. Three years later, nearly half of British homes were ‘online’. By 2004, the spread of ‘broadband’ connections had brought a new mass market in ‘downloading’ music and video. By 2006, three-quarters of British children had internet access at home.

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Simultaneously, the rich of America, Europe and Russia began buying up parts of London, and then other ‘attractive’ parts of the country, including Edinburgh, the Scottish Highlands, Yorkshire and Cornwall. ‘Executive housing’ with pebbled driveways, brick facing and dormer windows, was growing across farmland and by rivers with no thought of flood-plain constraints. Parts of the country far from London, such as the English south-west and Yorkshire, enjoyed a ripple of wealth that pushed their house prices to unheard-of levels. From Leith to Gateshead, Belfast to Cardiff Bay, once-derelict shorefront areas were transformed. The nineteenth-century buildings in the Albert Dock in Liverpool (above) now house a maritime museum, an art gallery, shopping centre and television studio. It has also become a tourist attraction. For all the problems and disappointments, and the longer-term problems with their financing, new schools and public buildings sprang up – new museums, galleries, vast shopping complexes (see below), corporate headquarters in a biomorphic architecture of glass and steel, more imaginative and better-looking than their predecessors from the dreary age of concrete.

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Supermarket chains exercised huge market power, offering cheap meat and dairy products into almost everyone’s budgets. Factory-made ready-meals were transported and imported by the new global air freight market and refrigerated trucks and lorries moving freely across a Europe shorn of internal barriers. Out-of-season fruit and vegetables, fish from the Pacific, exotic foods of all kinds and freshly cut flowers appeared in superstores everywhere. Hardly anyone was out of reach of a ‘Tesco’, a ‘Morrison’s’, a ‘Sainsbury’s’ or an ‘Asda’. By the mid-noughties, the four supermarket giants owned more than 1,500 superstores throughout the UK. They spread the consumption of goods that in the eighties and nineties had seemed like luxuries. Students had to take out loans in order to go to university but were far more likely to do so than previous generations, as well as to travel more widely on a ‘gap’ year, not just to study or work abroad.

Those ‘Left Behind’ – Poverty, Pensions & Public Order:

Materially, for the majority of people, this was, to use Marr’s term, a ‘golden age’, which perhaps helps to explain both why earlier real anger about earlier pension decisions and stealth taxes did not translate into anti-Labour voting in successive general elections. The irony is that in pleasing ‘Middle Englanders’, the Blair-Brown government lost contact with traditional Labour voters, especially in the North of Britain, who did not benefit from these ‘golden years’ to the same extent. Gordon Brown, from the first, made much of New Labour’s anti-poverty agenda, and especially child poverty. Since the launch of the Child Poverty Action Group, this latter problem had become particularly emotive. Labour policies took a million children out of relative poverty between 1997 and 2004, though the numbers rose again later. Brown’s emphasis was on the working poor and the virtue of work. So his major innovations were the national minimum wage, the ‘New Deal’ for the young unemployed, and the working families’ tax credit, as well as tax credits aimed at children. There was also a minimum income guarantee and a later pension credit, for poorer pensioners.

The minimum wage was first set at three pounds sixty an hour, rising year by year. In 2006 it was 5.35 an hour. Because the figures were low, it did not destroy the two million jobs as the Tories claimed it would. Neither did it produce higher inflation; employment continued to grow while inflation remained low. It even seemed to have cut red tape. By the mid-noughties, the minimum wage covered two million people, the majority of them women. Because it was updated ahead of rises in inflation rates, the wages of the poor also rose faster. It was so successful that even the Tories were forced to embrace it ahead of the 2005 election. The New Deal was funded by a windfall tax on privatised utility companies, and by 2000 Blair said it had helped a quarter of a million young people back into work, and it was being claimed as a major factor in lower rates of unemployment as late as 2005. But the National Audit Office, looking back on its effect in the first parliament, reckoned the number of under twenty-five-year-olds helped into real jobs was as low as 25,000, at a cost per person of eight thousand pounds. A second initiative was targeted at the babies and toddlers of the most deprived families. ‘Sure Start’ was meant to bring mothers together in family centres across Britain – 3,500 were planned for 2010, ten years after the scheme had been launched – and to help them to become more effective parents. However, some of the most deprived families failed to show up. As Andrew Marr wrote, back in 2007:

Poverty is hard to define, easy to smell. In a country like Britain, it is mostly relative. Though there are a few thousand people living rough or who genuinely do not have enough to keep them decently alive, and many more pensioners frightened of how they will pay for heating, the greater number of poor are those left behind the general material improvement in life. This is measured by income compared to the average and by this yardstick in 1997 there were three to four million children living in households of relative poverty, triple the number in 1979. This does not mean they were physically worse off than the children of the late seventies, since the country generally became much richer. But human happiness relates to how we see ourselves relative to those around us, so it was certainly real. 

The Tories, now under new management in the shape of a media-marketing executive and old Etonian, David Cameron, also declared that they believed in this concept of relative poverty. After all, it was on their watch, during the Thatcher and Major governments, that it had tripled, which is why it was only towards the end of the New Labour governments that they could accept the definition of the left-of-centre Guardian columnist, Polly Toynbee. A world of ‘black economy’ work also remained below the minimum wage, in private care homes, where migrant servants were exploited, and in other nooks and crannies. Some 336,000 jobs remained on ‘poverty pay’ rates. Yet ‘redistribution of wealth’, a socialist phrase which had become unfashionable under New Labour lest it should scare away middle Englanders, was stronger in Brown’s Britain than in other major industrialised nations. Despite the growth of the super-rich, many of whom were immigrants anyway, overall equality increased in these years. One factor in this was the return to the means-testing of benefits, particularly for pensioners and through the working families’ tax credit, subsequently divided into a child tax credit and a working tax credit. This was a U-turn by Gordon Brown, who had opposed means-testing when in Opposition. As Chancellor, he concluded that if he was to direct scarce resources at those in real poverty, he had little choice.

Apart from the demoralising effect it had on pensioners, the other drawback to means-testing was that a huge bureaucracy was needed to track people’s earnings and to try to establish exactly what they should be getting in benefits. Billions were overpaid and as people did better and earned more from more stable employment, they then found themselves facing huge demands to hand back the money they had already spent. Thousands of extra civil servants were needed to deal with the subsequent complaints and the scheme became extremely expensive to administer. There were also controversial drives to oblige more disabled people back to work, and the ‘socially excluded’ were confronted by a range of initiatives designed to make them more middle class. Compared with Mrs Thatcher’s Victorian Values and Mr Major’s Back to Basics campaigns, Labour was supposed to be non-judgemental about individual behaviour. But a form of moralism did begin to reassert itself. Parenting classes were sometimes mandated through the courts and for the minority who made life hell for their neighbours on housing estates, Labour introduced the Anti-Social Behaviour Order (‘Asbo’). These were first given out in 1998, granted by magistrates to either the police or the local council. It became a criminal offence to break the curfew or other sanction, which could be highly specific. Asbos could be given out for swearing at others in the street, harassing passers-by, vandalism, making too much noise, graffiti, organising ‘raves’, flyposting, taking drugs, sniffing glue, joyriding, prostitution, hitting people and drinking in public.

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Although they served a useful purpose in many cases, there were fears that for the really rough elements in society and their tough children they became a badge of honour. Since breaking an Asbo could result in an automatic prison sentence, people were sent to jail for crimes that had not warranted this before. But as they were refined in use and strengthened, they became more effective and routine. By 2007, seven and a half thousand had been given out in England and Wales alone and Scotland had introduced its own version in 2004. Some civil liberties campaigners saw this development as part of a wider authoritarian and surveillance agenda which also led to the widespread use of CCTV (Closed Circuit Television) cameras by the police and private security guards, especially in town centres (see above). Also in 2007, it was estimated that the British were being observed and recorded by 4.2 million such cameras. That amounted to one camera for every fourteen people, a higher ratio than for any other country in the world, with the possible exception of China. In addition, the number of mobile phones was already equivalent to the number of people in Britain. With global satellite positioning chips (GPS) these could show exactly where their users were and the use of such systems in cars and even out on the moors meant that Britons were losing their age-old prowess for map-reading.

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The ‘Seven Seven’ Bombings – The Home-grown ‘Jihadis’:

Despite these increasing means of mass surveillance, Britain’s cities have remained vulnerable to terrorist attacks, more recently by so-called ‘Islamic terrorists’ rather than by the Provisional IRA, who abandoned their bombing campaign in 1998. On 7 July 2005, at rush-hour, four young Muslim men from West Yorkshire and Buckinghamshire, murdered fifty-two people and injured 770 others by blowing themselves up on London Underground trains and on a London bus. The report into this worst such attack in Britain later concluded that they were not part of an al Qaeda cell, though two of them had visited camps in Pakistan, and that the rucksack bombs had been constructed at the cost of a few hundred pounds. Despite the government’s insistence that the war in Iraq had not made Britain more of a target for terrorism, the Home Office investigation asserted that the four had been motivated, in part at least, by ‘British foreign policy’.

They had picked up the information they needed for the attack from the internet. It was a particularly grotesque attack, because of the terrifying and bloody conditions in the underground tunnels and it vividly reminded the country that it was as much a target as the United States or Spain. Indeed, the long-standing and intimate relationship between Great Britain and Pakistan, with constant and heavy air traffic between them, provoked fears that the British would prove uniquely vulnerable. Tony Blair heard of the attack at the most poignant time, just following London’s great success in winning the bid to host the 2012 Olympic Games (see above). The ‘Seven Seven’ bombings are unlikely to have been stopped by CCTV surveillance, of which there was plenty at the tube stations, nor by ID cards (which had recently been under discussion), since the killers were British subjects, nor by financial surveillance, since little money was involved and the materials were paid for in cash. Even better intelligence might have helped, but the Security Services, both ‘MI5’ and ‘MI6’ as they are known, were already in receipt of huge increases in their budgets, as they were in the process of tracking down other murderous cells. In 2005, police arrested suspects in Birmingham, High Wycombe and Walthamstow, in east London, believing there was a plot to blow up as many as ten passenger aircraft over the Atlantic.

After many years of allowing dissident clerics and activists from the Middle East asylum in London, Britain had more than its share of inflammatory and dangerous extremists, who admired al Qaeda and preached violent jihad. Once 11 September 2001 had changed the climate, new laws were introduced to allow the detention without trial of foreigners suspected of being involved in supporting or fomenting terrorism. They could not be deported because human rights legislation forbade sending back anyone to countries where they might face torture. Seventeen were picked up and held at Belmarsh high-security prison. But in December 2004, the House of Lords ruled that these detentions were discriminatory and disproportionate, and therefore illegal. Five weeks later, the Home Secretary Charles Clarke hit back with ‘control orders’ to limit the movement of men he could not prosecute or deport. These orders would also be used against home-grown terror suspects. A month later, in February 2005, sixty Labour MPs rebelled against these powers too, and the government only narrowly survived the vote. In April 2006 a judge ruled that the control orders were an affront to justice because they gave the Home Secretary, a politician, too much power. Two months later, the same judge ruled that curfew orders of eighteen hours per day on six Iraqis were a deprivation of liberty and also illegal. The new Home Secretary, John Reid, lost his appeal and had to loosen the orders.

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Britain found itself in a struggle between its old laws and liberties and a new, borderless world in which the hallowed principles of ‘habeas corpus’, free speech, a presumption of innocence, asylum, the right of British subjects to travel freely in their own country without identifying papers, and the sanctity of homes in which the law-abiding lived were all coming under increasing jeopardy. The new political powers seemed to government ministers the least that they needed to deal with a threat that might last for another thirty years in order, paradoxically, to secure Britain’s liberties for the long-term beyond that. They were sure that most British people agreed, and that the judiciary, media, civil rights campaigners and elected politicians who protested were an ultra-liberal minority. Tony Blair, John Reid and Jack Straw were emphatic about this, and it was left to liberal Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats to mount the barricades in defence of civil liberties. Andrew Marr conceded at the time that the New Labour ministers were ‘probably right’. With the benefit of hindsight, others will probably agree. As Gordon Brown eyed the premiership, his rhetoric was similarly tough, but as Blair was forced to turn to the ‘war on terror’ and Iraq, he failed to concentrate enough on domestic policy. By 2005, neither of them could be bothered to disguise their mutual enmity, as pictured above. A gap seemed to open up between Blair’s enthusiasm for market ideas in the reform of health and schools, and Brown’s determination to deliver better lives for the working poor. Brown was also keen on bringing private capital into public services, but there was a difference in emphasis which both men played up. Blair claimed that the New Labour government was best when we are at our boldest. But Brown retorted that it was best when we are Labour. 

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Tony Blair’s legacy continued to be paraded on the streets of Britain,

here blaming him and George Bush for the rise of ‘Islamic State’ in Iraq.

Asylum Seekers, EU ‘Guest’ Workers & Immigrants:

One result of the long Iraqi conflict, which President Bush finally declared to be over on 1 May 2003, was the arrival of many Iraqi asylum-seekers in Britain; Kurds, as well as Shiites and Sunnis. This attracted little comment at the time because there had been both Iraqi and Iranian refugees in Britain since the 1970s, especially as students and the fresh influx were only a small part of a much larger migration into the country which changed it fundamentally during the Blair years. This was a multi-lingual migration, including many Poles, some Hungarians and other Eastern Europeans whose countries had joined the EU and its single market in 2004. When the EU expanded Britain decided that, unlike France or Germany, it would not try to delay opening the country to migrant workers. The accession treaties gave nationals from these countries the right to freedom of movement and settlement, and with average earnings three times higher in the UK, this was a benefit which the Eastern Europeans were keen to take advantage of. Some member states, however, exercised their right to ‘derogation’ from the treaties, whereby they would only permit migrant workers to be employed if employers were unable to find a local candidate. In terms of European Union legislation, a derogation or that a member state has opted not to enforce a specific provision in a treaty due to internal circumstances (typically a state of emergency), and to delay full implementation of the treaty for five years. The UK decided not to exercise this option.

There were also sizeable inflows of western Europeans, though these were mostly students, who (somewhat controversially) were also counted in the immigration statistics, and young professionals with multi-national companies. At the same time, there was continued immigration from Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan, as well as from Russia, Australia, South Africa and North America. In 2005, according to the Office for National Statistics, ‘immigrants’ were arriving to live in Britain at the rate of 1,500 a day. Since Tony Blair had been in power, more than 1.3 million had arrived. By the mid-2000s, English was no longer the first language of half the primary school children in London, and the capital had more than 350 different first languages. Five years later, the same could be said of many towns in Kent and other Eastern counties of England.

The poorer of the new migrant groups were almost entirely unrepresented in politics, but radically changed the sights, sounds and scents of urban Britain, and even some of its market towns. The veiled women of the Muslim world or its more traditionalist Arab, Afghan and Pakistani quarters became common sights on the streets, from Kent to Scotland and across to South Wales. Polish tradesmen, fruit-pickers and factory workers were soon followed by shops owned by Poles or stocking Polish and East European delicacies and selling Polish newspapers and magazines. Even road signs appeared in Polish, though in Kent these were mainly put in place along trucking routes used by Polish drivers, where for many years signs had been in French and German, a recognition of the employment changes in the long-distance haulage industry. Even as far north as Cheshire (see below), these were put in place to help monolingual truckers using trunk roads, rather than local Polish residents, most of whom had enough English to understand such signs either upon arrival or shortly afterwards. Although specialist classes in English had to be laid on in schools and community centres, there was little evidence that the impact of multi-lingual migrants had a long-term impact on local children and wider communities. In fact, schools were soon reporting a positive impact in terms of their attitudes toward learning and in improving general educational standards.

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Problems were posed, however, by the operations of people smugglers and criminal gangs. Chinese villagers were involved in a particular tragedy when nineteen of them were caught while cockle-picking in Morecambe Bay by the notorious tides and drowned. Many more were working for ‘gang-masters’ as virtual, in some cases actual ‘slaves’. Russian voices became common on the London Underground, and among prostitutes on the streets. The British Isles found themselves to be ‘islands in the stream’ of international migration, the chosen ‘sceptred isle’ destinations of millions of newcomers. Unlike Germany, Britain was no longer a dominant manufacturing country but had rather become, by the late twentieth century, a popular place to develop digital and financial products and services. Together with the United States and against the Soviet Union, it was determined to preserve a system of representative democracy and the free market. Within the EU, Britain maintained its earlier determination to resist the Franco-German federalist model, with its ‘social chapter’ involving ever tighter controls over international corporations and ever closer political union. Britain had always gone out into the world. Now, increasingly, the world came to Britain, whether poor immigrants, rich corporations or Chinese manufacturers.

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Multilingual & Multicultural Britain:

Immigration had always been a constant factor in British life, now it was also a fact of life which Europe and the whole world had to come to terms with. Earlier post-war migrations to Britain had provoked a racialist backlash, riots, the rise of extreme right-wing organisations and a series of new laws aimed at controlling it. New laws had been passed to control both immigration from the Commonwealth and the backlash to it. The later migrations were controversial in different ways. The ‘Windrush’ arrivals from the Caribbean and those from the Indian subcontinent were people who looked different but who spoke the same language and in many ways had had a similar education to that of the ‘native’ British. Many of the later migrants from Eastern Europe looked similar to the white British but shared little by way of a common linguistic and cultural background. However, it’s not entirely true to suggest, as Andrew Marr seems to, that they did not have a shared history. Certainly, through no fault of their own, the Eastern Europeans had been cut off from their western counterparts by their absorption into the Soviet Russian Empire after the Second World War, but in the first half of the century, Poland had helped the British Empire to subdue its greatest rival, Germany, as had most of the peoples of the former Yugoslavia. Even during the Soviet ‘occupation’ of these countries, many of their citizens had found refuge in Britain.

Moreover, by the early 1990s, Britain had already become both a multilingual nation. In 1991, Safder Alladina and Viv Edwards published a book for the Longman Linguistics Library which detailed the Hungarian, Lithuanian, Polish, Ukrainian and Yiddish speech communities of previous generations. Growing up in Birmingham, I certainly heard many Polish, Yiddish, Yugoslav and Greek accents among my neighbours and parents of school friends, at least as often as I heard Welsh, Irish, Caribbean, Indian and Pakistani accents. The Longman book begins with a foreword by Debi Prasanna Pattanayak in which she stated that the Language Census of 1987 had shown that there were 172 different languages spoken by children in the schools of the Inner London Education Authority. In an interesting precursor of the controversy to come, she related how the reaction in many quarters was stunned disbelief, and how one British educationalist had told her that England had become a third world country. She commented:

After believing in the supremacy of English as the universal language, it was difficult to acknowledge that the UK was now one of the greatest immigrant nations of the modern world. It was also hard to see that the current plurality is based on a continuity of heritage. … Britain is on the crossroads. It can take an isolationist stance in relation to its internal cultural environment. It can create a resilient society by trusting its citizens to be British not only in political but in cultural terms. The first road will mean severing dialogue with the many heritages which have made the country fertile. The second road would be working together with cultural harmony for the betterment of the country. Sharing and participation would ensure not only political but cultural democracy. The choice is between mediocrity and creativity.

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Language and dialect in the British Isles, showing the linguistic diversity in many English cities by 1991 as a result of Commonwealth immigration as well as the survival and revival of many of the older Celtic languages and dialects of English.

Such ‘liberal’, ‘multi-cultural’ views may be unfashionable now, more than a quarter of a century later, but it is perhaps worth stopping to look back on that cultural crossroads, and on whether we are now back at that same crossroads, or have arrived at another one. By the 1990s, the multilingual setting in which new Englishes evolved had become far more diverse than it had been in the 1940s, due to immigration from the Indian subcontinent, the Caribbean, the Far East, and West and East Africa. The largest of the ‘community languages’ was Punjabi, with over half a million speakers, but there were also substantial communities of Gujurati speakers (perhaps a third of a million) and a hundred thousand Bengali speakers. In some areas, such as East London, public signs and notices recognise this (see below). Bengali-speaking children formed the most recent and largest linguistic minority within the ILEA and because the majority of them had been born in Bangladesh, they were inevitably in the greatest need of language support within the schools. A new level of linguistic and cultural diversity was introduced through Commonwealth immigration.

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Birmingham’s booming postwar economy attracted West Indian settlers from Jamaica, Barbados and St Kitts in the 1950s. By 1971, the South Asian and West Indian populations were equal in size and concentrated in the inner city wards of North and Central Birmingham (see the map above).  After the hostility towards New Commonwealth immigrants in some sections of the local White populations in the 1960s and ’70s, they had become more established in cities like Birmingham, where places of worship, ethnic groceries, butchers and, perhaps most significantly, ‘balti’ restaurants, began to proliferate in the 1980s and ’90s. The settlers materially changed the cultural and social life of the city, most of the ‘white’ population believing that these changes were for the better. By 1991, Pakistanis had overtaken West Indians and Indians to become the largest single ethnic minority in Birmingham. The concentration of West Indian and South Asian British people in the inner city areas changed little by the end of the century, though there was an evident flight to the suburbs by Indians. As well as being poorly-paid, the factory work available to South Asian immigrants like the man in a Bradford textile factory below, was unskilled. By the early nineties, the decline of the textile industry over the previous two decades had let to high long-term unemployment in the immigrant communities in the Northern towns, leading to serious social problems.

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Nor is it entirely true to suggest that, as referred to above, Caribbean arrivals in Britain faced few linguistic obstacles integrating themselves into British life from the late 1940s to the late 1980s. By the end of these forty years, the British West Indian community had developed its own “patois”, which had a special place as a token of identity. One Jamaican schoolgirl living in London in the late eighties explained the social pressures that frowned on Jamaican English in Jamaica, but which made it almost obligatory in London. She wasn’t allowed to speak Jamaican Creole in front of her parents in Jamaica. When she arrived in Britain and went to school, she naturally tried to fit in by speaking the same patois, but some of her British Caribbean classmates told her that, as a “foreigner”, she should not try to be like them, and should speak only English. But she persevered with the patois and lost her British accent after a year and was accepted by her classmates. But for many Caribbean visitors to Britain, the patois of Brixton and Notting Hill was a stylized form that was not truly Jamaican, not least because British West Indians had come from all parts of the Caribbean. When another British West Indian girl, born in Britain, was taken to visit Jamaica, she found herself being teased about her London patois and told to speak English.

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The predicament that still faced the ‘Black British’ in the late eighties and into the nineties was that, for all the rhetoric, they were still not fully accepted by the established ‘White community’. Racism was still an everyday reality for large numbers of British people. There was plenty of evidence of the ways in which Black people were systematically denied access to employment in all sections of the job market.  The fact that a racist calamity like the murder in London of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence could happen in 1993 was a testimony to how little had changed in British society’s inability to face up to racism since the 1950s. As a result, the British-Caribbean population could still not feel itself to be neither fully British. This was the poignant outcome of what the British Black writer Caryl Phillips has called “The Final Passage”, the title of his novel which is narrated in Standard English with the direct speech by the characters rendered in Creole. Phillips migrated to Britain as a baby with his parents in the 1950s, and sums up his linguistic and cultural experience as follows:

“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 shizophrenia – you have an identity that mirrors the larger cultural confusion.”

One of his older characters in The Final Passage characterises “England” as a “college for the West Indian”, and, as Philipps himself put it, that is “symptomatic of the colonial situation; the language is divided as well”.  As the “Windrush Scandal”, involving the deportation of British West Indians from the UK has recently shown, this post-colonial “cultural confusion” still ‘colours’ political and institutional attitudes twenty-five years after the death of Stephen Lawrence, leading to discriminatory judgements by officials. This example shows how difficult it is to arrive at some kind of chronological classification of migrations to Britain into the period of economic expansion of the 1950s and 1960s; the asylum-seekers of the 1970s and 1980s; and the EU expansion and integration in the 1990s and the first decades of the 2000s. This approach assumed stereotypical patterns of settlement for the different groups, whereas the reality was much more diverse. Most South Asians, for example, arrived in Britain in the post-war period but they were joining a migration ‘chain’ which had been established at the beginning of the twentieth century. Similarly, most Eastern European migrants arrived in Britain in several quite distinct waves of population movement. This led the authors of the Longman Linguistics book to organise it into geolinguistic areas, as shown in the figure below:

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The Poles and Ukrainians of the immediate post-war period, the Hungarians in the 1950s, the Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s and the Tamils in the 1980s, sought asylum in Britain as refugees. In contrast, settlers from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Caribbean, had, in the main come from areas of high unemployment and/or low wages, for economic reasons. It was not possible, even then, to make a simple split between political and economic migrants since, even within the same group, motivations differed through time. The Eastern Europeans who had arrived in Britain since the Second World War had come for a variety of reasons; in many cases, they were joining earlier settlers trying either to escape poverty in the home country or to better their lot. A further important factor in the discussion about the various minority communities in Britain was the pattern of settlement. Some groups were concentrated into a relatively small geographical area which made it possible to develop and maintain strong social networks; others were more dispersed and so found it more difficult to maintain a sense of community. Most Spaniards, Turks and Greeks were found in London, whereas Ukrainians and Poles were scattered throughout the country. In the case of the Poles, the communities outside London were sufficiently large to be able to sustain an active community life; in the case of Ukrainians, however, the small numbers and the dispersed nature of the community made the task of forging a separate linguistic and cultural identity a great deal more difficult.

Groups who had little contact with the home country also faced very real difficulties in retaining their distinct identities. Until 1992, Lithuanians, Latvians, Ukrainians and Estonians were unable to travel freely to their country of origin; neither could they receive visits from family members left behind; until the mid-noughties, there was no possibility of new immigration which would have the effect of revitalizing these communities in Britain. Nonetheless, they showed great resilience in maintaining their ethnic minority, not only through community involvement in the UK but by building links with similar groups in Europe and even in North America. The inevitable consequence of settlement in Britain was a shift from the mother tongue to English. The extent of this shift varied according to individual factors such as the degree of identification with the mother tongue culture; it also depended on group factors such as the size of the community, its degree of self-organisation and the length of time it had been established in Britain. For more recently arrived communities such as the Bangladeshis, the acquisition of English was clearly a more urgent priority than the maintenance of the mother tongue, whereas, for the settled Eastern Europeans, the shift to English was so complete that mother tongue teaching was often a more urgent community priority. There were reports of British-born Ukrainians and Yiddish-speaking Jews who were brought up in predominantly English-speaking homes who were striving to produce an environment in which their children could acquire their ‘heritage’ language.

Blair’s Open Door Policy & EU Freedom of Movement:

During the 1980s and ’90s, under the ‘rubric’ of multiculturalism, a steady stream of immigration into Britain continued, especially from the Indian subcontinent. But an unspoken consensus existed whereby immigration, while always gradually increasing, was controlled. What happened after the Labour Party’s landslide victory in 1997 was a breaking of that consensus, according to Douglas Murray, the author of the recent (2017) book, The Strange Death of Europe. He argues that once in power, Tony Blair’s government oversaw an opening of the borders on a scale unparalleled even in the post-war decades. His government abolished the ‘primary purpose rule’, which had been used as a filter out bogus marriage applications. The borders were opened to anyone deemed essential to the British economy, a definition so broad that it included restaurant workers as ‘skilled labourers’. And as well as opening the door to the rest of the world, they opened the door to the new EU member states after 2004. It was the effects of all of this, and more, that created the picture of the country which was eventually revealed in the 2011 Census, published at the end of 2012.

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The numbers of non-EU nationals moving to settle in Britain were expected only to increase from 100,000 a year in 1997 to 170,000 in 2004. In fact, the government’s predictions for the number of new arrivals over the five years 1999-2004 were out by almost a million people. It also failed to anticipate that the UK might also be an attractive destination for people with significantly lower average income levels or without a minimum wage. For these reasons, the number of Eastern European migrants living in Britain rose from 170,000 in 2004 to 1.24 million in 2013. Whether the surge in migration went unnoticed or was officially approved, successive governments did not attempt to restrict it until after the 2015 election, by which time it was too late.

(to be continued)

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Britain, Ireland and Europe, 1994-99: Peace, Devolution & Development.   Leave a comment

LSF (1947) Nobel Peace Prize obv

Unionists & Nationalists – The Shape of Things to Come:

In Northern Ireland, optimism was the only real force behind the peace process. Too often, this is remembered by one of Blair’s greatest soundbites as the talks reached their climax: This is no time for soundbites … I feel the hand of history on my shoulder. Despite the comic nature of this remark, it would be churlish not to acknowledge this as one of his greatest achievements. Following the tenacious efforts of John Major to bring Republicans and Unionists to the table, which had resulted in a stalemate. Tony Blair had already decided in Opposition that an Irish peace settlement would be one of his top priorities in government. He went to the province as his first visit after winning power and focused Number Ten on the negotiations as soon as the IRA, sensing a fresh opportunity, announced a further ceasefire. In Mo Mowlem, Blair’s brave new Northern Ireland Secretary, he had someone who was prepared to be tough in negotiations with the Unionists and encouraging towards Sinn Feiners in order to secure a deal. Not surprisingly, the Ulster Unionist politicians soon found her to be too much of a ‘Green’. She concentrated her charm and bullying on the Republicans, while a Number Ten team dealt with the Unionists. Blair emphasised his familial links with Unionism in order to win their trust.

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There were also direct talks between the Northern Irish political parties, aimed at producing a return of power-sharing in the form of an assembly in which they could all sit. These were chaired by former US Senator George Mitchell and were the toughest part. There were also talks between the Northern Irish parties and the British and Irish governments about the border and the constitutional position of Northern Ireland in the future. Finally, there were direct talks between London and Dublin on the wider constitutional and security settlement. This tripartite process was long and intensely difficult for all concerned, which appeared to have broken down at numerous points and was kept going mainly thanks to Blair himself. He took big personal risks, such as when he invited Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein-IRA to Downing Street. Some in the Northern Ireland office still believe that Blair gave too much away to the Republicans, particularly over the release of terrorist prisoners and the amnesty which indemnified known terrorists, like those responsible for the Birmingham bombings in 1974, from prosecution. At one point, when talks had broken down again over these issues, Mo Mowlem made the astonishing personal decision to go into the notorious Maze prison herself and talk to both Republican and Loyalist terrorist prisoners. Hiding behind their politicians, the hard men still saw themselves as being in charge of their ‘sides’ in the sectarian conflict. But Blair spent most of his time trying to keep the constitutional Unionists ‘on board’, having moved Labour policy away from support for Irish unification. In Washington, Blair was seen as being too Unionist.

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Given a deadline of Easter 1998, a deal was finally struck, just in time, on Good Friday, hence the alternative name of ‘the Belfast Agreement’. Northern Ireland would stay part of the United Kingdom for as long as the majority in the province wished it so. The Republic of Ireland would give up its territorial claim to the North, amending its constitution to this effect. The parties would combine in a power-sharing executive, based on a newly elected assembly. There would also be a North-South body knitting the two political parts of the island together for various practical purposes and mundane matters. The paramilitary organisations would surrender or destroy their weapons, monitored by an independent body. Prisoners would be released and the policing of Northern Ireland would be made non-sectarian by the setting up of a new police force to replace the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), whose bias towards the Unionist community had long been a sore point for Nationalists. The deal involved a great deal of pain, particularly for the Unionists. It was only the start of a true peace and would be threatened frequently afterwards, such as when the centre of Omagh was bombed only a few months after its signing by a renegade splinter group of the IRA calling itself ‘the Real IRA’ (see the photo below). It murdered twenty-nine people and injured two hundred. Yet this time the violent extremists were unable to stop the rest from talking.

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Once the agreement had been ratified on both sides of the border, the decommissioning of arms proved a seemingly endless and wearisome game of bluff. Though the two leaders of the moderate parties in Northern Ireland, David Trimble of the Ulster Unionists and John Hume of the Nationalist SDLP, won the Nobel Prize for Peace, both these parties were soon replaced in elections by the harder-line Democratic Unionist Party led by Rev. Dr Ian Paisley, and by Sinn Fein, under Adams and McGuinness. Initially, this made it harder to set up an effective power-sharing executive at Stormont (pictured below). Yet to almost everyone’s surprise, Paisley and McGuinness sat down together and formed a good working relationship. The thuggery and crime attendant on years of paramilitary activity took another decade to disappear. Yet because of the agreement hundreds more people are still alive who would have died had the ‘troubles’ continued. They are living in relatively peaceful times. Investment has returned and Belfast has been transformed into a busier, more confident city. Large businesses increasingly work on an all-Ireland basis, despite the continued existence of two currencies and a border. The fact that both territories are within the European Union enables this to happen without friction at present, though this may change when the UK leaves the EU and the Republic becomes a ‘foreign country’ to it for the first time since the Norman Conquest. Tony Blair can take a sizeable slice of credit for this agreement. As one of his biographers has written:

He was exploring his own ability to take a deep-seated problem and deal with it. It was a life-changing experience for him.

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If the Good Friday Agreement changed the future relationship of the UK and Ireland, Scottish and Welsh devolution changed the future political shape of Great Britain. The relative indifference of the eighteen-year Tory ascendancy to the plight of the industrial areas of Scotland and Wales had transformed the prospects of the nationalist parties in both countries. Through the years of Tory rule, the case for a Scottish parliament had been bubbling under north of the border. Margaret Thatcher had been viewed as a conspicuously English figure imposing harsh economic penalties on Scotland, which had always considered itself to be inherently more egalitarian and democratic. The Tories, who had successfully played the Scottish card against centralising Labour in 1951, had themselves become labelled as a centralising and purely English party. Local government had already been reorganised in Britain and Northern Ireland in the early 1990s with the introduction of ‘unitary’ authorities.

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Scotland had a public culture further to the left than that of southern England, and therefore the initiatives on devolution came from the respectable middle-classes. A group of pro-devolution activists, including SNP, Labour and Liberal supporters, churchmen, former civil servants and trade unionists to found the Campaign for a Scottish Assembly. In due course, this produced a Constitutional Convention meant to bring in a wider cross-section of Scottish life behind their ‘Claim of Right’. It argued that if Scots were to stand on their own two feet as Mrs Thatcher had insisted, they needed control over their own affairs. Momentum increased when the Scottish Tories lost half their remaining seats in the 1987 election, and, following the poll tax rebellion, the Convention got going in March 1989, after Donald Dewar, Labour’s leader in Scotland, decided to work with other parties. The Convention brought together the vast majority of Scottish MPs, all but two of Scotland’s regional, district and island councils, the trade unions, churches, charities and many other organisations, in fact almost everyone except the Conservatives, who were sticking with the original Union, and the SNP, who wanted full independence.

Scottish Tories, finding themselves increasingly isolated, fought back vainly. They pointed out that if a Tory government, based on English votes, was regarded as illegitimate by the Scots, then in future a Labour government based on Scottish votes might be regarded as illegitimate by the English. In a 1992 poll in Scotland, fifty per cent of those asked said they were in favour of independence within the European Union. In the 1992 election, John Major had made an impassioned appeal for the survival of the Union. Had the four countries never come together, he argued, their joint history would have never been as great: Are we, in our generation, to throw all that away?  He won back a single Scottish seat. Various minor sops were offered to the Scots during his years in office, including the return of the Stone of Destiny, with much ceremony. However, the minor Tory recovery in 1992 was wiped out in the Labour landslide of 1997, when all the Conservatives seats north of the border, where they had once held the majority of them, were lost, as they were in Wales. Formerly just contestants in middle-class, rural and intellectual constituencies, in 1997 Scottish and Welsh nationalists now made huge inroads into former Conservative areas, and even into the Labour heartlands, and the latter despite the Labour leadership being held consecutively by a Welshman and a Scot.

By the time Tony Blair became the party leader, Labour’s commitment to devolution was long-standing. Unlike his predecessor, he was not much interested in devolution or impressed by it, particularly not for Wales, where support had been far more muted. The only thing he could do by this stage was to insist that a Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly would only be set up after referenda in the two countries, which in Scotland’s case would include a second question as to whether the parliament should be given the power to vary the rate of income tax by 3p in the pound. In September 1997, Scotland voted by three to one for the new Parliament, and by nearly two to one to give it tax-varying powers. The vote for the Welsh Assembly was far closer, with a wafer-thin majority secured by the final constituency to declare, that of Carmarthen. The Edinburgh parliament would have clearly defined authority over a wide range of public services – education, health, welfare, local government, transport and housing – while Westminster kept control over taxation, defence, foreign affairs and some lesser matters. The Welsh assembly in Cardiff would have fewer powers and no tax-raising powers. The Republic of Ireland was similarly divided between two regional assemblies but unlike the assemblies in the UK, these were not elected.

In 1999, therefore, devolved governments, with varying powers, were introduced in Scotland, Wales and, following the ratification referendum on the Belfast Agreement, in Northern Ireland. After nearly three hundred years, Scotland got its parliament with 129 MSPs, and Wales got its assembly with sixty members. Both were elected by proportional representation, making coalition governments almost inevitable. In Scotland, Labour provided the first ‘first minister’ in Donald Dewar, a much-loved intellectual, who took charge of a small group of Labour and Liberal Democrat ministers. To begin with, Scotland was governed from the Church of Scotland’s general assembly buildings. The devolution promised by John Smith and instituted by Tony Blair’s new Labour government in the late 1990s did, initially, seem to take some of the momentum out of the nationalist fervour, but apparently at the expense of stoking the fires of English nationalism, resentful at having Scottish and Welsh MPs represented in their own assemblies as well as in Westminster. But there was no early crisis at Westminster because of the unfairness of Scottish and Welsh MPs being able to vote on England-only business, the so-called Midlothian Question, particularly when the cabinet was so dominated by Scots. But despite these unresolved issues, the historic constitutional changes brought about by devolution and the Irish peace process reshaped both Britain and Ireland, producing irrevocable results. In his television series A History of Britain, first broadcast on the BBC in 2000, Simon Schama argued that…

Histories of Modern Britain these days come not to praise it but to bury it, celebrating the denationalization of Britain, urging on the dissolution of ‘Ukania’ into the constituent European nationalities of Scotland, Wales and England (which would probably tell the Ulster Irish either to absorb themselves into a single European Ireland or to find a home somewhere else – say the Isle of Man). If the colossal asset of the empire allowed Britain, in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, to exist as a genuine national community ruled by Welsh, Irish and (astonishingly often) Scots, both in Downing Street and in the remote corners of the empire, the end of that imperial enterprise, the theory goes, ought also to mean the decent, orderly liquidation of Britannia Inc. The old thing never meant anything anyway, it is argued; it was just a spurious invention designed to seduce the Celts into swallowing English domination where once they had been coerced into it, and to persuade the English themselves that they would be deeply adored on the grouse moors of the Trossachs as in the apple orchards of the Weald. The virtue of Britain’s fall from imperial grace, the necessity of its European membership if only to avoid servility to the United States, is that it forces ‘the isles’ to face the truth: that they are many nations, not one.

However, in such a reduction of false British national consciousness to the ‘true’ identities and entities of Scotland, Wales and England, he argued, self-determination could go beyond the ‘sub-nations’, each of which was just as much an invention, or a re-invention, as was Britain. Therefore an independent Scotland would not be able to resist the rights to autonomy of the Orkney and Shetland islands, with their Nordic heritage, or the remaining Gallic-speaking isles of the Outer Hebrides. Similarly, the still primarily Anglophone urban south-Walians and the inhabitants of the Welsh borders and south coast of Pembrokeshire might in future wish to assert their linguistic and cultural differences from the Welsh-speakers of the rural Welsh-speakers of West and North Wales. With the revival of their Celtic culture, the Cornish might also wish to seek devolution from a country from which all other Celts have retreated into their ethnolinguistic heartlands. Why shouldn’t post-imperial Britain undergo a process of ‘balkanization’ like that of the Former Yugoslavia?

LSF RSF Lets build a culture of peace LR

Well, many like Schama seemed to answer at that time, and still do today, precisely because of what happened due to ethnonationalism in the Balkans, especially in Bosnia and Kosovo, where the conflicts were only just, in 1999, being brought to an end by air-strikes and the creation of tides of refugees escaping brutal ethnic cleansing. The breaking up of Britain into ever smaller and purer units of pure white ethnic groups was to be resisted. Instead, a multi-national, multi-ethnic and multi-cultural Britain was coming into being through a gradual and peaceful process of devolution of power to the various national, ethnic and regional groups and a more equal re-integration of them into a ‘mongrel’ British nation within a renewed United Kingdom.

Economic Development, the Regions of Britain & Ireland and the Impact of the EU:

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The late twentieth century saw the transformation of the former docklands of London into offices and fashionable modern residential developments, with a new focus on the huge Canary Wharf scheme (pictured above) to the east of the city. The migration of some financial services and much of the national press to the major new developments in London’s Docklands prompted the development of the Docklands Light Railway and the Jubilee line extension. The accompanying modernisation of the London Underground was hugely expensive in legal fees and hugely complex in contracts. Outside of London, improvements in public transport networks were largely confined to urban and suburban centres with light railway networks developed in Manchester, Sheffield and Croydon.

Beyond Canary Wharf to the east, the Millennium Dome, which Blair’s government inherited from the Tories, was a billion pound gamble which Peter Mandelson and ‘Tony’s cronies’ decided to push ahead with, despite cabinet opposition. Architecturally, the dome was striking and elegant, a landmark for London which can be seen from by air passengers arriving in the capital. The millennium was certainly worth celebrating but the conundrum ministers and their advisers faced was what to put in their ‘pleasure’ Dome. It would be magnificent, unique, a tribute to British daring and ‘can-do’. Blair himself said that it would provide the first paragraph of his next election manifesto. But this did not answer the current question of what it was for, exactly. When the Dome finally opened at New Year, the Queen, Prime Minister and celebrities were treated to a mish-mash of a show which embarrassed many of them. When it opened to the public, the range of mildly interesting exhibits was greeted as a huge disappointment. Optimism and daring, it seemed, were not enough to fill the people’s expectations. Later that year, Londoners were given a greater gift in the form of a mayor and regional assembly with powers over local planning and transport. This new authority in part replaced the Greater London Council abolished by the Thatcher government in 1986.

However, there were no signs that the other conurbations in the regions of England wanted regionalisation, except for some stirrings in the Northeast and Cornwall. The creation of nine Regional Development Agencies in England in 1998-99 did not seek to meet a regionalist agenda. In fact, these new bodies to a large extent matched the existing structures set up since the 1960s for administrative convenience and to encourage inward investment. Improving transport links were seen as an important means of stimulating regional development and combating congestion. Major Road developments in the 1990s included the completion of the M25 orbital motorway around London and the M40 link between London and Birmingham. However, despite this construction programme, congestion remained a problem: the M25, for example, became the butt of jokes labelling it as the largest car park on the planet, while traffic speeds in central London continued to fall, reaching fifteen kilometres per hour by 1997, about the same as they had been in 1907. Congestion was not the only problem, however, as environmental protests led to much of the road-building programme begun by the Tory governments being shelved after 1997. The late nineties also saw the development of some of the most expensive urban motorways in Europe.

In the Sottish Highlands and Islands, the new Skye road bridge connected the Isle of Skye to the mainland. A group led by the Bank of America built and ran the new bridge. It was one of the first projects built under a ‘public finance initiative’, or PFI, which had started life under Tory Chancellor Norman Lamont, five years before Labour came to power when he experimented with privatising public projects and allowing private companies to run them, keeping the revenue. Although the basic idea was simple enough, this represented a major change in how government schemes were working, big enough to arouse worry even outside the tribes of political obsessives. There were outraged protests from some islanders about paying tolls to a private consortium and eventually the Scottish Executive bought the bridge back. At the opposite corner of the country, the Queen Elizabeth II road bridge was built joining Kent and Essex across the Thames at Dartford, easing congestion on both sides of the Dartford tunnel. It was the first bridge across the river in a new place for more than half a century and was run by a company called ‘Le Crossing’, successfully taking tolls from motorists.

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Undoubtedly the most important transport development was the Channel Tunnel rail link to France, completed in 1994. It was highly symbolic of Britain’s commitment to European integration, and millions of people and vehicles had travelled from London to Paris in under three hours by the end of the century. The town of Ashford in Kent was one of the major beneficiaries of the ‘Chunnel’ rail link, making use of railway links running through the town. Its population grew by over ten per cent in the 1990s. By the end of that decade, the town had an international catchment area of some eighty-five million people within a single day’s journey. This and the opening of Ashford International railway station as the main terminal in the rail link to the continent attracted a range of engineering, financial, distribution and manufacturing companies to the town. In addition to the fourteen business parks that were established in the town, new retail parks were opened. Four green-field sites were also opened on the outskirts of the town, including a science park owned by Trinity College, Cambridge. Ashford became closer to Paris and Brussels than it was to Manchester and Liverpool, as can be seen on the map below. In addition to its international rail link, the town’s position at the hub of a huge motorway network was in a position to be an integral part of a truly international transport system.

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Modern-day affluence at the turn of the century was reflected in the variety of goods and services concentrated in shopping malls. They are now often built on major roads outside towns and cities to make them accessible to the maximum number of people in a region.

Economic change was most dramatic in the Irish Republic, which enjoyed the highest growth rates in Europe in the 1990s. The so-called ‘Celtic Tiger’ economy boomed, aided by inward investment so that by the end of the decade GDP per capita had surpassed that of the UK. Dublin, which remained if anything more dominant than London as a capital city, flourished as a result of a strong growth in the service industries. Growth rates for the ‘new economy’ industries such as information and communications technology were among the highest in the world. Generous tax arrangements and the city’s growing reputation as a cultural centre meanwhile helped to encourage the development of Dublin’s ‘rockbroker belt’. Even agriculture in the Irish Republic, in decline in the early 1990s, still contributed nine per cent of Ireland’s GDP, three times the European average. In the west of Ireland, it was increasingly supplemented by the growth of tourism.

Nevertheless, while the expansion of Ireland’s prosperity lessened the traditional east-west divide, it did not eliminate it. Low population density and a dispersed pattern of settlement were felt to make rail developments unsuitable. Consequently, Ireland’s first integrated transport programme, the Operational Programme for Peripherality, concentrated on improving: the routes from the west of Ireland to the ferry port of Rosslare; the routes from Belfast to Cork; Dublin and the southwest; east-west routes across the Republic. Many of these improvements benefited from EU funding. The EU also aided, through its ‘peace programme’, the development of transport planning in Britain, with infrastructure projects in, for example, the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. In 1993, the EU had decided to create a combined European transport network. Of the fourteen projects associated with this aim, three were based in Britain and Ireland – a rail link from Cork to Larne in Northern Ireland, the ferry port for Scotland; a road link from the Low Countries across England and Wales to Ireland, and the West Coast mainline railway route in Britain.

The old north-south divide in Britain reasserted itself with a vengeance in the late 1990s as people moved south in search of jobs and prosperity as prices and wages rose. Even though the shift towards service industries was reducing regional economic diversity, the geographical distribution of regions eligible for European structural funds for economic improved the continuing north-south divide. Transport was only one way in which the EU increasingly came to shape the geography of the British Isles in the nineties. It was, for example, a key factor in the creation of the new administrative regions of Britain and Ireland in 1999. At the same time, a number of British local authorities opened offices in Brussels for lobbying purposes and attempts to maximise receipts from European structural funds also encouraged the articulation of regionalism. Cornwall, for instance, ‘closed’ its ‘border’ with Devon briefly in 1998 in protest at not receiving its EU social funds, while the enthusiasm for the supposed economic benefits that would result from ‘independence in Europe’ helped to explain the revival of the Scottish Nationalist Party following devolution. ‘Silicon Gen’ in central Scotland was, by the end of the decade, the largest producer of computing equipment in Europe.

The European connection was less welcome in other quarters, however. Fishermen, particularly in Devon and Cornwall and on the North Sea Coast of England, felt themselves the victims of the Common Fisheries Policy quota system. There was also a continuing strong sense of ‘Euroscepticism’ in England, fuelled at this stage by a mixture of concerns about ‘sovereignty’ and economic policy, which I will deal with in a separate article. Here, it is worth noting that even the most enthusiastic Europhiles, the Irish, sought to reject recent EU initiatives which they felt were not in their interests in their 2001 referendum on the Treaty of Nice. Nevertheless, the growth of physical links with Europe, like the Channel Tunnel, the connections between the British and French electricity grids, and the development of ‘budget’ airlines, made it clear that both of the main ‘offshore’ islands, Britain and Ireland were, at the turn of the century, becoming increasingly integrated, both in economic and administrative terms, with the continent of Europe.

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At the beginning of 1999, however, a debate began over British membership of the euro, the single currency which was finally taking shape within the EU. Though he was never a fanatic on the subject, Blair’s pro-European instincts and his desire to be a leading figure inside the EU predisposed him to announce that Britain would join, not in the first wave, but soon afterwards. He briefed that this would happen. British business seemed generally in favour, but the briefing and guesswork in the press were completely baffling. For Gordon Brown, stability came first, and he concluded that it was not likely that Britain could safely join the euro within the first Parliament. When he told Blair this, the two argued and then eventually agreed on a compromise. Britain would probably stay out during the first Parliament, but the door should be left slightly ajar. Pro-European business people and those Tories who had lent Blair and Brown their conditional support, as well as Blair’s continental partners, should be kept on board, as should the anti-Euro press. The terms of the delicate compromise were meant to be revealed in an interview given by Brown to The Times. Being more hostile to entry than Blair, and talking to an anti-euro newspaper, his team briefed more strongly than Blair would have liked. By the time the story was written, the pound had been saved from extinction for the lifetime of the Parliament. Blair was aghast at this.

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The chaos surrounding this important matter was ended and the accord with Blair patched up by Brown and his adviser Ed Balls, who quickly produced five economic tests which would be applied before Britain would enter the euro. They required more detailed work by the Treasury; the underlying point was that the British and continental economies must be properly aligned before Britain would join. Brown then told the Commons that though it was likely that, for economic reasons, Britain would not join the euro until after the next election, there was no constitutional or political reason not to join. Preparations for British entry would therefore begin. This gave the impression that once the tests were met there would be a post-election referendum, followed by the demise of sterling.

In 1999, with a full-scale launch at a London cinema, Blair was joined by the Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy and the two former Tory cabinet ministers Ken Clarke and Michael Heseltine to launch ‘Britain in Europe’ as a counter-blast to the anti-Euro campaign of ‘Business for Sterling’. Blair promised that together they would demolish the arguments against the euro, and there was alarmist media coverage about the loss of eight million jobs if Britain pulled out of the EU. But the real outcome of this conflict was that the power to decide over membership of the euro passed decisively from Blair to Brown, whose Treasury fortress became the guardian of the economic tests. Brown would keep Britain out on purely economic grounds, something which won him great personal credit among Conservative ‘press barons’. There was to be no referendum on the pound versus euro, however much the Prime Minister wanted one.

Very little of what New Labour had achieved up to 1999 was what it was really about, however, and most of its achievements had been in dealing with problems and challenges inherited from previous governments or with ‘events’ to which it had to react. Its intended purpose was to deliver a more secure economy, radically better public services and a new deal for those at the bottom of British society. Much of this was the responsibility of Gordon Brown, as agreed in the leadership contest accord between the two men. The Chancellor would become a controversial figure later in government, but in his early period at the Treasury, he imposed a new way of governing. He had run his time in Opposition with a tight team of his own, dominated by Ed Balls, later an MP and Treasury minister before becoming shadow chancellor under Ed Miliband following the 2010 general election. Relations between Team Brown and the Treasury officials began badly and remained difficult for a long time. Brown’s handing of interest control to the Bank of England was theatrical, planned secretly in Opposition and unleashed to widespread astonishment immediately New Labour won. Other countries, including Germany and the US, had run monetary policy independently of politicians, but this was an unexpected step for a left-of-centre British Chancellor. It turned out to be particularly helpful to Labour ministers since it removed at a stroke the old suspicion that they would favour high employment over low inflation. As one of Brown’s biographers commented, he…

 …could only give expression to his socialist instincts after playing the role of uber-guardian of the capitalist system.

The bank move has gone down as one of the clearest achievements of the New Labour era. Like the Irish peace process and the devolution referenda, it was an action which followed on immediately after Labour won power, though, unlike those achievements, it was not something referred to in the party’s election manifesto. Brown also stripped the Bank of England of its old job of overseeing the rest of the banking sector. Otherwise, it would have had a potential conflict of interest if it had had to concern itself with the health of commercial banks at the same time as managing interest rates. As a result of these early actions, New Labour won a reputation for being economically trustworthy and its Chancellor was identified with ‘prudent’ management of the nation’s finances. Income tax rates did not increase, which reassured the middle classes. Even when Brown found what has more recently been referred to as ‘the magic money tree’, he did not automatically harvest it. And when the ‘dot-com bubble’ was at its most swollen, he sold off licenses for the next generation of mobile phones for 22.5 bn, vastly more than they were soon worth. The produce went not into new public spending but into repaying the national debt, 37 bn of it. By 2002 government interest payments on this were at their lowest since 1914, as a proportion of its revenue.

Despite his growing reputation for prudence, Brown’s introduction of ‘stealth taxes’ proved controversial, however. These included the freezing of income tax thresholds so that an extra 1.5 million people found themselves paying the top rate; the freezing of personal allowances; rises in stamp duties on houses and a hike in national insurance. In addition, some central government costs were palmed off onto the devolved administrations or local government, so that council tax rose sharply, and tax credits for share dividends were removed. Sold at the time as a ‘prudent’ technical reform, enabling companies to reinvest in their core businesses, this latter measure had a devastating effect on the portfolios of pension funds, wiping a hundred billion off the value of retirement pensions. This was a staggering sum, amounting to more than twice as much as the combined pension deficits of Britain’s top 350 companies. Pensioners and older workers were angered when faced with great holes in their pension funds. They were even more outraged when Treasury papers released in 2007 showed that Brown had been warned about the effect this measure would have. The destruction of a once-proud pension industry had more complex causes than Brown’s decision; Britain’s fast-ageing population was also a major factor, for one. But the pension fund hit produced more anger than any other single act by the New Labour Chancellor.

Perhaps the most striking long-term effect of Brown’s careful running of the economy was the stark, dramatic shape of public spending. For his first two years, he stuck fiercely to the promise he had made about continuing the Major government’s spending levels. These were so tight that even the man who set these levels, Kenneth Clarke, said that he would not actually have kept to them had the Tories been re-elected and had he been reappointed as Chancellor. Brown brought down the State’s share of public spending from nearly 41% of GDP to 37.4% by 1999-2000, the lowest percentage since 1960 and far below anything achieved under Thatcher. He was doing the opposite of what previous Labour Chancellors had done. On arriving in office, they had immediately started spending, in order to stimulate the economy in classical Keynesian terms. When they had reached their limits, they had then had to raise taxes. He began by putting a squeeze on spending and then loosening up later. There was an abrupt and dramatic surge in public spending, particularly on health, back up to 43%. The lean years were immediately followed by the fat ones, famine by the feast. But the consequence of the squeeze was that the first New Labour government of 1997-2001 achieved far less in public services than it had promised. For example, John Prescott had promised a vast boost in public transport, telling the Commons in 1997:

I will have failed if in five years’ time there are not many more people using public transport and far fewer journeys by car. It’s a tall order, but I urge you to hold me to it.

Because of ‘Prudence’, and Blair’s worries about being seen as anti-car, Prescott had nothing like the investment to follow through and failed completely. Prudence also meant that Brown ploughed ahead with cuts in benefit for lone-parent families, angering Labour MPs and resulting in a Scottish Labour conference which labelled their Westminster government and their own Scots Chancellor as economically inept, morally repugnant and spiritually bereft. Reform costs money and without money, it barely happened in the first term, except in isolated policy areas where Blair and Brown put their heads down and concentrated. The most dramatic programme was in raising literacy and numeracy among younger children, where Number Ten worked closely with the Education Secretary, David Blunkett, and scored real successes. But unequivocally successful public service reforms were rare.

At first, Labour hated the idea of PFIs, which were a mixture of two things associated with Thatcherite economic policies, the privatisation of capital projects, with the government paying a fee to private companies over many years, and the contracting out of services – waste collection, school meals, cleaning – which had been imposed on unwilling socialist councils from the eighties. Once in power, however, Labour ministers began to realise that those three little letters were political magic because they allowed them to announce and oversee exciting new projects and take the credit for them in the full knowledge that the full bill would be left for the taxpayers of twenty to fifty years hence. In this way, spending and funding of new hospitals or schools would be a problem for a future health or education minister.

PFIs were particularly attractive when other kinds of spending were tightly controlled by ‘Prudence’. Large amounts of capital for public buildings were declared to be ‘investment’, not spending, and put to one side of the public accounts. The justification was that private companies would construct and run this infrastructure so much more efficiently than the State and that profits paid to them by taxpayers would be more than compensated for. Ministers replied to criticisms of these schemes by pointing out that, without them, Britain would not get the hundreds of new school buildings, hospitals, health centres, fire stations, army barracks, helicopter training schools, prisons, government offices, roads and bridges that it so obviously needed by the nineties. Significantly, the peak year for PFIs was 1999-2000, just as the early Treasury prudence in conventional spending had bitten hardest and was being brought to an end.

Sources:

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

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

Peter Catterall (et. al.) (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books.

Posted November 23, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in Affluence, Agriculture, Balkan Crises, BBC, Belfast Agreement, Birmingham, Britain, British history, Britons, Brussels, Celtic, devolution, Education, Ethnic cleansing, Europe, European Union, History, Immigration, Integration, Irish history & folklore, John Major, Margaret Thatcher, Migration, morality, nationalism, Nationality, New Labour, Population, privatization, Quakers (Religious Society of Friends), Reconciliation, Respectability, Social Service, south Wales, Thatcherism, Unionists, Wales, War Crimes, Welsh language, Yugoslavia

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