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The Rise of Thatcherism in Britain, 1979-83: Part Two.   Leave a comment

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Above: Denis Healey in combatant mood

Labour’s ‘Civil War’ and the Creation of the SDP:

As a general election loomed, with Labour in visible disarray, Margaret Thatcher moved within a couple of months from being one of the least popular prime ministers ever to being an unassailable national heroine. This was the result of two ‘factors’, the struggle for power within the Labour Party, which (as I wrote about in the first part of this article) began with Callaghan’s decision to step down as its leader in the autumn of 1980, and the Falklands Crisis and War of 1982.

Labour’s Civil War began with constitutional arguments about whether MPs should be able to be sacked by their local constituency parties. It became nasty, personal, occasionally physical, and so disgusted those outside its ranks that the party almost disappeared as an effective organisation. Undoubtedly, there was widespread bitterness on the left of the party about what were considered to be the right-wing policies of the defeated Wilson-Callaghan government, and about the small number of party conference decisions which found their way into Labour’s manifesto at the May 1979 election. In this atmosphere, the left wanted to take power away from right-wing MPs and their leadership and carry out a revolution from below. They believed that if they could control the party manifesto, the leadership election and bring the MPs to heel, they could turn Labour into a radical socialist party which would then destroy Thatcher’s economics at the next general election.

At Labour’s October 1980 Blackpool Conference, the left succeeded in voting through resolutions calling for Britain to withdraw from the European Community, unilateral disarmament, the closing of US bases in Britain, no incomes policy and State control of the whole of British industry, plus the creation of a thousand peers to abolish the House of Lords. Britain would become a kind of North Sea Cuba. The Trotskyite Militant Tendency, which had infiltrated the Labour Party, believed in pushing socialist demands so far that the democratic system would collapse and a full-scale class war would follow. Tony Benn, who thought that their arguments are sensible and they make perfectly good rational points, saw Militant as no more than of a threat than the old Tribune group or the pre-war Independent Labour Party. He thought that the left would bring about a thoroughly decent socialist victory. In fact, thuggish intimidation in many local Labour parties by Militant supporters was driving moderate members away in droves. Many mainstream trade unionists went along with Militant, feeling let down by the Wilson and Callaghan governments. So too did those who were driven by single issues, such as nuclear disarmament.

Shrewd tactics and relentless campaigning enabled a small number of people to control enough local parties and union branches to have a disproportionate effect in Labour conference votes, where the huge, undemocratic block votes of the trades unions no longer backed the leadership. At the 1980 Conference, the left won almost every important vote, utterly undermining Callaghan, who quit as leader two weeks later. Since new leadership election rules would not be in place until a special conference the following January, Labour MPs had one final chance to elect their own leader. Michael Foot, the old radical and intellectual, was persuaded to stand.  Benn would stand no chance against him, especially since he had now allied himself with the Trotskyists who were attacking the MPs. But Foot was a great parliamentarian and was considered to be the only candidate who could beat Denis Healey, by now the villain of the piece for the Labour left.

Healey had already highlighted the fatal flaw in their strategy which was that if they did take over the Labour Party, the country wouldn’t vote for it. Activists, he told them, were different from the vast majority of the British people, for whom politics was something to think about once a year at most. His robust remarks about what would later be called ‘the loony left’ were hardly calculated to maximise his chances, despite his popularity in the country at the time. At any rate, he was eventually beaten by Foot by 139 votes to 129. Many believe that Foot was the man who saved the Labour Party since he was the only leader remotely acceptable to both the old guard and the Bennite insurgents. He took on the job out of a sense of duty, with his old-style platform oratory. He was always an unlikely figure to topple Margaret Thatcher, the ‘Iron Lady’. It was the last blast of romantic intellectual socialism against the free market.

At the special party conference, Labour’s rules were indeed changed to give the unions forty per cent of the votes for future Labour leaders, the activists in the constituencies thirty per cent, and the MPs only thirty per cent. Labour’s struggle now moved to its next and most decisive stage, with the left in an exuberant mood. It was decided that Benn must challenge Healey for the deputy leadership the following year. This would signal an irreversible move. A Foot-Benn Labour Party would be a fundamentally different one from a party in which Healey continued to have a strong voice. Both sides saw it as the final battle and ‘Benn for Deputy’ badges began to appear everywhere. Benn went campaigning around the country with verve and relentless energy. I heard him speak impressively at the Brangwyn Hall in Swansea, though his analysis of the problems in the British economy was far stronger than the solutions he proposed. At public meetings, Healey was booed and heckled and spat at. The intimidation of anyone who would not back Benn was getting worse, though Benn himself was apparently unaware of what was being said and done in his name. Neil Kinnock eventually decided that he would support neither Benn nor Healey, announcing his decision in Tribune. As education spokesman, he had been gradually moving away from the hard left, while continuing to support his neighbouring south Wales and fellow-Bevanite MP and now party leader, Michael Foot. Popular in the party, he was regarded with increasing suspicion by Tony Benn. But this open break with the left’s ‘champion’ shocked many of his friends. At the Brighton conference, Benn was narrowly beaten by Healey, by less than one per cent of the votes. Neil Kinnock and Arthur Scargill clashed angrily on television, and a young Jeremy Corbyn openly called for the mandatory deselection of Tribune MPs who had refused to back Benn.

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This next phase was too much for those who were already planning to break away and form a new party. Roy Jenkins had already mooted the idea before the Bennite revolt, as he contemplated the state of the British party system from his offices in Brussels, where he was President of the European Commission. He argued that the Victorian two-party system was out-dated and that coalition government was not such a bad thing. It was time, he said, to strengthen the ‘radical centre’ and find a way through the economic challenges which accepted the free market but also took unemployment seriously. Although he was in touch with David Steel, the Liberal leader, and was close to Liberal thinking, he judged that only a new party would give British politics the new dimension it needed. He began holding lunches for his old friends on the right of the Labour Party, including Bill Rodgers, still a shadow cabinet member, and Shirley Williams, who had lost her seat but who remained one of the best-liked politicians in the country. At this stage, the public reaction from Labour MPs was discouraging. Williams herself had said that a new centre party would have no roots, no principles, no philosophy and no values. David Owen, the young doctor and former Foreign Secretary, who was now fighting against unilateral nuclear disarmament, said Labour moderates must stay in the party and fight even if it took ten or twenty years.

The Bennite revolt changed many minds, however. After the Wembley conference, at which Owen was booed for his views on defence, he, Jenkins, Williams and Rodgers issued the ‘Limehouse Declaration’, describing Wembley as ‘calamitous’ and calling for a new start in British politics. Two months later, this was formalised as the ‘Social Democratic Party’ (SDP) two months later, in March 1981. In total thirteen Labour MPs defected to it and many more might have done so had not Roy Hattersley and others fought very hard to persuade them not to. Within two weeks, twenty-four thousand messages of support had flooded in and peers, journalists, students, academics and others were keen to join. Public meetings were packed from Scotland to the south coast of England, and media coverage was extensive and positive. In September an electoral pact was agreed with the Liberal Party, and ‘the Alliance’ was formed.

After running the Labour Party close in the Warrington by-election, the SDP won their first seat when Shirley Williams took Crosby from the Conservatives in November, with nearly half the votes cast, followed by Jenkins winning Glasgow Hillhead from the Tories the following year. His victory allowed Jenkins to become the leader of the party in the Commons, but David Owen had always believed that leadership was more rightly his and feared that Jenkins was leading the SDP towards a merger with the Liberals. Owen saw himself still as a socialist, although of a new kind. By the early eighties, the Liberal Party was led by Steel, ‘the boy David’ who was looking for a route back from the Thorpe scandal to the centre ground. The alliance with the SDP provided this, but Owen was not alone in despising the Liberals and the eventual merger between the two parties was bitter and difficult. Nevertheless, the initial upsurge in the SDP’s support shook both the Labour Party and the Conservatives and by the early spring of 1982, the SDP and Liberals could look forward with some confidence to breaking the mould of British politics.

The Falklands ‘Escapade’:

One of the many ironies of the Thatcher story is that she was rescued from the political consequences of her monetarism by the blunders of her hated Foreign Policy. In the great economic storms of 1979-81, and on the European budget battle, she had simply charged ahead, ignoring all the flapping around her in pursuit of a single goal. In the South Atlantic, she would do exactly the same and with her good luck, she was vindicated. Militarily, it could so easily have all gone wrong, and the Falklands War could have been a terrible disaster, confirming the Argentinian dictatorship in power in the South Atlantic and ending Margaret Thatcher’s career after just one term as Prime Minister. Of all the gambles in modern British politics, the sending of a task force of ships from the shrunken and underfunded Royal Navy eight thousand miles away to take a group of islands by force was one of the most extreme.

On both sides, the conflict derived from colonial quarrels, dating back to 1833, when the scattering of islands had been declared a British colony. In Buenos Aires, a newly installed ‘junta’ under General Leopoldo Galtieri was heavily dependent on the Argentine navy, itself passionately keen on taking over the islands, known in Argentina as the Malvinas. The following year would see the 150th anniversary of ‘British ownership’ which the Argentines feared would be used to reassert the Falklands’ British future. The junta misread Whitehall’s lack of policy for lack of interest and concluded that an invasion would be easy, popular and impossible to reverse. In March an Argentine ship ‘tested the waters’ by landing on South Georgia, a small dependency south of the Falklands, disembarking scrap-metal dealers. Then on 1 April, the main invasion began, a landing by Argentine troops which had been carefully prepared for by local representatives of the national airline. In three hours it was all over, and the eighty British marines surrendered, having killed five Argentine troops and injured seventeen with no losses of their own. In London, there was mayhem. Thatcher had had a few hours’ warning of what was happening from the Defence Secretary, John Nott. Calling a hurried meeting in her Commons office, Sir John Leach gave her clarity and hope, when her ministers were as confused as she was. He told her he could assemble a task-force of destroyers, frigates and landing craft, led by Britain’s two remaining aircraft carriers. It could be ready to sail within forty-eight hours and the islands could be retaken by force. She told him to go ahead. Soon after, the Foreign Secretary, Peter Carrington, tended his resignation, accepting responsibility for the Foreign Office’s failings.

But Margaret Thatcher was confronted by a moral question which she could not duck, which was that many healthy young men were likely to die or be horribly injured in order to defend the ‘sovereignty’ of the Falkland Islanders. In the end, almost a thousand did die, one for every two islanders and many others were maimed and psychologically wrecked. She argued that the whole structure of national identity and international law were at stake. Michael Foot, who had been bellicose in parliament at first, harking back to the appeasement of fascism in the thirties, urged her to find a diplomatic answer. Later she insisted that she was vividly aware of the blood-price that was waiting and not all consumed by lust for conflict. Thatcher had believed that from the start that to cave in would finish her. The press, like the Conservative Party itself, were seething about the original diplomatic blunders. As it happened, the Argentine junta, even more belligerent, ensured that a serious deal was never properly put. They simply insisted that the British task-force be withdrawn from the entire area and that Argentine representatives should take part in any interim administration and that if talks failed Britain would simply lose sovereignty. The reality, though, was that their political position was even weaker than hers. She established a small war cabinet and the task-force, now up to twenty vessels strong was steadily reinforced. Eventually, it comprised more than a hundred ships and 25,000 men. The world was both transfixed and bemused.

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Above: Royal Marines march towards Port Stanley during the Falklands War.

The Empire struck back, and by the end of the month South Georgia was recaptured and a large number of Argentine prisoners taken: Thatcher urged questioning journalists outside Number Ten simply to ‘rejoice, rejoice!’ Then came one of the most controversial episodes in the short war. A British submarine, The Conqueror, was following the ageing but heavily armed cruiser, the Belgrano. The British task-force was exposed and feared a pincer movement, although the Belgrano was later found to have been outside an exclusion zone announced in London, and streaming away from the fleet. With her military commanders at Chequers, Thatcher authorised the submarine attack. The Belgrano was sunk, with the loss of 321 sailors. The Sun newspaper carried the headline ‘Gotcha!’ Soon afterwards, a British destroyer was hit by an Argentine Exocet missile and later sunk. Forty died.

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On 18 May 1982, the war cabinet agreed that landings on the Falklands should go ahead, despite lack of full air cover and worsening weather. By landing at the unexpected bay of San Carlos in low cloud, British troops got ashore in large numbers. Heavy Argentine air attacks, however, took a serious toll. Two frigates were badly damaged, another was sunk, then another, then a destroyer, then a container ship with vital supplies. Nevertheless, three thousand British troops secured a beach-head and began to fight their way inland. Over the next few weeks, they captured the settlements of Goose Green and Darwin, killing 250 Argentine soldiers and capturing 1,400 for the loss of twenty British lives. Colonel ‘H’ Jones became the first celebrated hero of the conflict when he died leading ‘2 Para’ against heavy Argentine fire. The battle then moved to the tiny capital, Port Stanley, or rather to the circle of hills around it where the Argentine army was dug in. Before the final assault on 8 June, two British landing ships, Sir Tristram and Sir Galahad were hit by missiles and the Welsh Guards suffered dreadful losses, many of the survivors being badly burned. Simon Weston was one of them. Out of his platoon of 30 men, 22 were killed. The Welsh Guards lost a total of 48 men killed and 97 wounded aboard the Sir Galahad. Weston survived with 46% burns, following which his face was barely recognisable. He later became a well-known spokesman and charity-worker for his fellow injured and disabled veterans. He recalled:

My first encounter with a really low point was when they wheeled me into the transit hospital at RAF Lyneham and I passed my mother in the corridor and she said to my gran, “Oh mam, look at that poor boy” and I cried out “Mam, it’s me!” As she recognised my voice her face turned to stone.

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Simon Weston in 2008

The Falklands Factor and the 1983 Election:

The trauma of the Falklands War broke across Britain, nowhere more strongly than in Wales. The impact on Wales was direct, in the disaster to the Welsh Guards at Bluff Cove and in anxieties over the Welsh communities in Patagonia in Argentina. Plaid Cymru was the only mainstream party to totally oppose the war from the beginning, and it evoked a strong response among artists in Wales. Students from the Welsh College and Drama in Cardiff staged a satirical drama on the war which won many plaudits. They portrayed the war as a mere butchery for a meaningless prize. Veteran Labour MP Tam Dalyell hounded the Prime Minister with parliamentary questions as he sought to prove that the sailors on the Belgrano had been killed to keep the war going, not for reasons of military necessity. One of the few memorable moments of the 1983 election campaign came when Mrs Thatcher was challenged on television about the incident by a woman who seemed a match for her. Among the Labour leadership, Denis Healey accused her of glorifying in slaughter and Neil Kinnock got into trouble when, responding to a heckler who said that at least Margaret Thatcher had guts, he replied that it was a pity that other people had had to leave theirs on Goose Green to prove it.  But there had also been those on the left who supported the war, together with Michael Foot, because of their opposition to the Argentine dictatorship, and there is little doubt that it gave a similar impetus to British patriotism across the political spectrum. It also bolstered a more narrow nationalism, jingoism and chauvinism both in the Conservative party and in the media.

For millions, the Falklands War seemed a complete anachronism, a Victorian gunboat war in a nuclear age, but for millions more still it served as a wholly unexpected and almost mythic symbol of rebirth. Margaret Thatcher herself lost no time in telling the whole country what she thought the war meant. It was more than simply a triumph of ‘freedom and democracy’ over Argentinian dictatorship. Speaking at Cheltenham racecourse in early July, she said:

We have ceased to be a nation in retreat. We have instead a newfound confidence, born in the economic battles at home and found true eight thousand miles away … Printing money is no more. Rightly this government has abjured it. Increasingly the nation won’t have it … That too is part of the Falklands factor. … Britain found herself again in the South Atlantic and will not look back from the victory she has won. 

Of course, the Falklands War fitted into Margaret Thatcher’s personal narrative and merged into a wider sense that confrontation was required in public life country’s politics. The Provisional IRA had assassinated Lord Mountbatten on his boat off the coast of Donegal in 1979 and the mainland bombing campaign went on with attacks on the Chelsea barracks, then Hyde Park bombings, when eight people were killed and fifty-three injured. In Northern Ireland itself, from the spring of 1981, a hideous IRA hunger-strike had been going on, leading to the death of Bobby Sands and nine others. Thatcher called Sands a convicted criminal who chose to take his own life. It was a choice, she added, that the PIRA did not allow to any of its victims. She was utterly determined not to flinch and was as rock-hard as the ruthless Irish republican enemies.

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Thatcher was now becoming a vividly divisive figure. On one side were those who felt they, at last, had their Boudicca, a warrior queen for hard times. On the other were those who saw her as a dangerous and bloodthirsty figure, driven by an inhumane worldview. To the cartoonists of the right-wing press, she was the embodiment of Britannia, surrounded by cringing ‘wets’. To others, she was simply mad, with a sharply curved vulture’s beak nose, staring eyes and rivets in her hair. Gender-confusion was rife. France’s President Mitterrand, who in fact had quite a good relationship with her, summed up the paradox better than any British observer when, after meeting her soon after his own election, he told one of his ministers, She has the eyes of Caligula but she has the mouth of Marilyn Monroe.

The Falklands War confirmed and underlined these opposing and paradoxical views of Thatcher. She encouraged the government’s think tank, the Central Policy Review Staff, to come up with a paper about the future of public spending. They came up with a manifesto which could be characterised as ‘Margaret Thatcher unconstrained’. They suggested ending state funding of higher education, extending student loans to replace grants, breaking the link between benefits and the cost of living, and replacing the National Health Service with a system of private health insurance, including charges for doctor’s visits and prescriptions. In effect, this represented the end of Attlee’s Welfare State. Although some of these ideas would become widely discussed much later, at the time the prospectus was regarded as ‘bonkers’ by most of those around her. The PM supported it but ministers who regarded it as, potentially, her worst mistake since coming to power, leaked the CPRS report to the press in order to kill it off. In this they were successful, but the whole episode was an early indication of how Thatcher’s charge-ahead politics could produce disasters as well as triumphs.

The electoral consequences of the Falklands War have been argued about ever since. The government had got inflation down and the economy was at last improving but the overall Conservative record in 1983 was not impressive. The most dramatic de-industrialisation of modern times, with hundreds of recently profitable businesses disappearing forever, had been caused in part by a very high pound boosted by Britain’s new status as an oil producer. Up to this point, unemployment had been seen as a price worth paying in order to control inflation, but the extent of de-manning required by 1983 had been underestimated. Howe’s economic squeeze, involving heavy tax increases and a reduction in public borrowing deflated the economy, reducing demand and employment. In the 1980s, two million manufacturing jobs disappeared, most of them by 1982. Given the shrinking of the country’s industrial base and unemployment at three million, a total tax burden of forty per cent of GDP and public spending at forty-four per cent, there were plenty of targets for competent Opposition politicians to take aim at. In an ordinary election, the state of the economy would have had the governing party in serious trouble, but this was no ordinary election.

After the war, the Conservatives shot into a sudden and dramatic lead in the polls over the two Opposition groupings now ranged against them.  In the 1983 general election, the SDP and the Liberals took nearly a quarter of the popular vote, but the electoral system gave them just twenty-three MPs, only six of them from the SDP, a bitter harvest after the advances made in the by-elections of 1981-2. Labour was beaten into third place in the number of votes cast. This meant that the Conservatives won by a landslide, giving Mrs Thatcher a majority of 144 seats, a Tory buffer which kept them in power until 1997. It would be perverse to deny that the Falklands conflict was crucial, giving Thatcher a story to tell about herself and the country which was simple and vivid and made sense to millions. But there were other factors in play, ones which were present in the political undercurrents of 1981-2 and the divisions within the Labour Party in particular. For one thing, the Labour Party’s Manifesto at the 1983 Election, based on the left-wing Conference decisions of 1980-82, was later considered to be the longest suicide note in history.

The Political and Cultural Landscape of Wales:

In Wales, we had expected that the calamitous effect of the monetarist policies would produce a surge in support for Labour and that the effect of the Falklands factor would not weigh so heavily in the Tories’ favour as elsewhere in Britain. We were wrong. Moreover, we believed that the efforts we had made on the left-wing of the national movement in association with Welsh language activists, libertarian socialist groups, ecological, peace and women’s groups would bring dividends in electoral terms. But, in the Wales of 1983, these remained marginal movements as the country remained, for the most part, locked into the British two-party system. The General Election of 1983 exposed the myth that South Wales, in particular, was still some kind of ‘heartland of Labour’ and continued the trend of 1979 in relocating it within the South of the British political landscape. In Wales as a whole, the Labour vote fell by nearly ten per cent, exceeded only in East Anglia and the South-East of England, and level with London again. The Labour vote in Wales fell by over 178,000, the Tories by 24,000 (1.7 per cent), the great ‘victors’ being the Alliance, whose votes rocketed by over two hundred thousand. This surge did not, however, benefit the third parties in terms of seats, which simply transferred directly from Labour to Conservative.

The Conservatives, with a candidate of Ukranian descent and strong right-wing views, took the Cardiff West seat of George Thomas, the former Speaker, and swept most of Cardiff. They also took the marginal seat of Bridgend and pressed hard throughout the rural west, almost taking Carmarthen. Michael Foot visited the constituency and held a major rally, during which he spoke powerfully but almost fell of the stage. We canvassed hard on the council estates for the Labour MP, Dr Roger Thomas, managing to hold off both the Tories and Plaid Cymru, in what turned out to be Gwynfor Evans’ last election. Nevertheless, the Tories ended up with thirteen seats out of thirty-eight in Wales. Plaid Cymru, disappointed in the valleys, still managed to hold its green line across the north-west, holding Caernarfon and Merioneth and moving into second place, ahead of Labour, on Anglesey. The Alliance more than doubled the former Liberal poll, reaching twenty-three per cent in the popular vote, and coming second in nineteen out of the thirty-eight seats. But it won only two seats. Labour’s defeat seemed to be slithering into rout even though it retained more than half the seats, twenty in all. It held on by the skin of its teeth not only to Carmarthen but also to Wrexham, its former stronghold in the north-east. In the fourteen seats which covered its traditional base in the south, one fell to the Conservatives and six became three-way marginals. The SDP-Liberal Alliance came second in ten and, in the Rhondda won eight thousand votes without even campaigning. The remaining seven constituencies gave Labour over half of their votes. Of the old twenty thousand majority seats, only three remained: Rhondda, Merthyr Tydfil and Blaenau Gwent (Ebbw Vale). As Gwyn Williams commented:

They stand like Aneurin Bevan’s memorial stones on the Pound above Tredegar and they are beginning to look like the Stonehenge of Welsh politics.   

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Two other ‘events’ of cultural significance took place in Wales in 1983. The first demonstrates how the question of culture in Wales had become caught up with the arguments over language. The language became a badge, the possession of which by learners is a sign of good faith: I was one of them, though I never learnt how to write in Welsh. In 1979, however, I had managed, with the help of friends, to write a speech in ‘Cymraeg Byw’ (Colloquial Welsh) as ‘Cadeirydd’ (‘Chair’) of UCMC (NUS Wales), which I delivered at the National Eisteddfod in Caernarfon. I argued for English- speaking and Welsh-speaking students to come back together throughout Wales in order to defend the country, the University and their colleges, paid for by the ‘pennies’ of miners and quarrymen, from the cut-backs in education which the Tories were bringing in. I was not successful in persuading the Welsh-speaking students from Bangor, who had formed their own separate union in 1977, to form a federal union, like the one which existed in Aberystwyth. But what chance did we have when, four years later, the renowned poet R S Thomas, himself a learner of the language, fulminated at the Eisteddfod that the Welshman/ woman who did not try to speak Welsh was, in terms of Wales, an ‘un-person’. His fundamentalism as Dai Smith called it, demanded that reality, the chaos of uncertainty, be fenced in. R S Thomas, for all the brilliant wonder of his own poetry in English, had:

… turned Wales into ‘an analogy for most people’s experience of living in the twentieth century … a special, spare grammar and vocabulary in which certain statements can be made in no other language’. 

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Thomas’ conversion to Welsh language fundamentalism had come rather late in life. In the sixties and seventies, he had remarked that he was rather tired of the themes about nationalism and the decay of the rural structure of Wales and that whereas he used to propagandise on behalf of Welsh Country Life and … the Welsh identity, he felt that he’d wrung that dishcloth dry. In May 1983, the Western Mail had welcomed the poet to Cardiff on the occasion of his seventieth birthday to Cardiff, describing him as a man whose genius found expression in the search for the ancient simplicities of rural Wales. R Gerallt Jones, introducing an evening of celebration at the Sherman Theatre in the capital some days later, acclaimed Thomas as the poet who has expressed the national identity of the Welshman. As Tony Bianchi showed in 1986, Thomas’ work has been used  – within the context of a wide range of prescriptive notions concerning the “Welsh heritage” – to condemn most of the Welsh to a marginal existence in which they are permitted only a vicarious identity. That’s what makes R S Thomas’ statement at the 1983 National Eisteddfod so surprising and intriguing.

The second cultural ‘event’ was the publication of an impressionistic but learned survey of Welsh history by the distinguished Welsh novelist Emyr Humphrys. The Taliesin Tradition took as its theme the survival of a continuous Welsh tradition in the face of all contrary odds. He ascribed this to a ‘poetic tradition’ which had invested the native language with the power and authority to sustain ‘national being’. In order to explain the unfolding of Welsh history, however, he welcomes the blurring of history and myth:

The manufacture and proliferation of myth must always be a major creative activity among a people with unnaturally high expectations reduced by historic necessity … In Wales history and myth have always mingled and both have been of equal importance in the struggle for survival. 

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For ‘organic nationalists’, like R S Thomas and Emyr Humphrys, history must not only mingle with myth but also have its disciplines submitted to the needs of the nation. Dai Smith pointed out that while this provided for acceptable politics for some, it is not good history. The verbal dexterity which it requires, Dai Smith claimed, obscures the reality of Welsh life, by emphasising the myths of ‘the murder of the Welsh language’, and the ‘kowtowing to ‘Britishness’ at the expense of ‘Welshness’. On this theme, Gwyn Williams (below) wrote:

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Ahead, a country which largely lives by the British state, whose input into it is ten per cent of its gross product, faces a major reconstruction of its public sector … a country whose young people are being dumped like in town and country faces the prospect of a large and growing population which will be considered redundant in a state which is already considering a major reduction in the financial burden of welfare.

Small wonder that some, looking ahead, see nothing but a nightmare vision of a depersonalised Wales which has shrivelled up to a Costa Bureaucratica  in the south and a Costa Geriatrica in the north; in between, sheep, holiday homes burning merrily away and fifty folk museums where there used to be communities.

… What seems to be clear is that a majority of the inhabitants of Wales are choosing a British identity which seems to require the elimination of a Welsh one.

As it happened, Dai Smith was right. The idea that ‘Britishness’ and ‘Welshness’ were mutually exclusive was indeed a myth, and both were able to survive as dual identities into the later eighties and beyond.

Ghost Town – The Case of Coventry, 1979-83:

By the late 1970s, the British motor industry had reached an historic crossroads. Entry into the EEC had coincided with an unusually weak range of British products. Models were either outdated or bedevilled by quality and reliability problems. European manufacturers soon captured nearly forty per cent of the home market. The choice facing British manufacturers was varied. Those companies owned by American parents integrated their UK operations with their European counterparts. Ford and General Motors are two successful examples of this strategy. Unfortunately for Coventry, the Chrysler Corporation was experiencing problems in many parts of their ’empire’ and did not possess the resources necessary for the establishment of a high-volume European operation. British-owned Leyland faced a more complex situation. The company produced both high-volume and specialist products. The Cowley and Longbridge plants which produced high-volume products badly needed investment to keep up with the European companies and the American subsidiaries. The specialist producers, Jaguar, Rover and Triumph, also required a large injection of capital in order to meet the growing competition from such companies as Audi, BMW, Alfa Romeo and the Scandinavian manufacturers. The various schemes devised by Ryder and the National Enterprise Board underlined Leyland’s commitment to the large and medium volume plants. The announcement of the collaborative agreement with Honda in 1979 to produce a new Japanese designed quality saloon at Canley was seen by many as an end to uncertainty over Leyland’s long-term commitment to Coventry.

The change of government in 1979 soon quashed the cautious optimism that had been present in the local car industry. The Conservative economic strategy of high-interest rates overvalued the pound, particularly in the USA, the major market for Coventry’s specialist cars. Demand for Coventry models declined rapidly and Leyland management embarked upon a new rationalisation plan. The company’s production was to be concentrated into two plants, at Cowley and Longbridge. Triumph production was transferred to Cowley along with the Rover models produced at Solihull. The Courthouse Green engine plant in Coventry was closed and three of the city’s other car-manufacturing concerns – Alvis, Climax and Jaguar – were sold off to private buyers. Only Jaguar survived the recession. In the first three years of the Thatcher government, the number of Leyland employees in Coventry fell from twenty-seven thousand to just eight thousand. One writer described the effects of Conservative policy on manufacturing industry in these years as turning a process of gentle decline into quickening collapse. The city’s top fifteen manufacturing companies shed thirty-one thousand workers between 1979 and 1982. Well-known names at the base of the pyramid of Coventry’s economic life – Herbert’s, Triumph Motors and Renold’s – simply disappeared.

Even in 1979, before the change in government, unemployment in Coventry stood at just five per cent, exactly the same level as in the early seventies. There was a noticeable rise in youth unemployment towards the end of the decade, but this, as we have seen, was part of a national problem caused mainly by demographic factors. Neither was the election of the Tory government seen as a harbinger of hard times to come. Coventry had prospered reasonably well during previous Tory administrations and even enjoyed boom conditions as a result of the policies of Anthony Barber, Heath’s Chancellor of the Exchequer. Heath had ridden to the rescue of Rolls-Royce when it needed government assistance. Unfortunately, the economic brakes were applied too rapidly for the car industry and monetarist policy quickly cut into it. Redundancy lists and closure notices in the local press became as depressingly regular as the obituary column. The biggest surprise, however, was the lack of protest from the local Labour movement. It was as if all the ominous prophecies of the anti-union editorials which had regularly appeared in the Coventry Evening Telegraph during the industrial unrest of the previous decades were finally being fulfilled.

In any case, it was difficult to devise defensive industrial strategies. Michael Edwardes’ new tough industrial relations programme at British Leyland had seen the removal of Derek Robinson,  ‘Red Robbo’, the strongest motor factory union leader from Longbridge. He also demonstrated, at Speke in Liverpool, that he could and would close factories in the face of trade union opposition. Factory occupations, used to such effect by continental trades unionists had, thanks to the Meriden Triumph Motorcycle fiasco, no chance of local success. The opposition to closures was also undoubtedly diminished by redundancy payments which in many cases cushioned families from the still unrealised effects of the recession. Young people, especially school- leavers, were the real victims. Coventry’s much-prized craft apprenticeships all but vanished, with only ninety-five apprentices commencing training in 1981. In 1982, only sixteen per cent of sixteen-year-old school leavers found employment. The early 1980s were barren years for Coventry’s youth. Even the success of the local pop group, The Specials’, brought little relief, though for a brief moment the band’s song Ghost Town was a national success, giving vent to the plight of young people throughout the manufacturing towns of the Midlands and the North of England, not to mention Wales. The sombre comparison in the lyrics of boom time and recession express an experience that was felt more sharply in Coventry than elsewhere.

For the first time in over a century, Coventry became a net exporter of labour, but unemployment levels still remained stubbornly high. The main loss was mainly among the young skilled and technical management sectors, people who the city could ill afford to lose. Little research and development work was taking place in local industry. Talbot’s research department at Whitley including much key personnel, for example, was removed to Paris in 1983. The Conservatives promised in 1979 that a restructuring of the economy would be followed by increased investment and employment opportunities, but by 1983 there were very few signs of that promise being fulfilled. Coventry’s peculiar dependence on manufacturing and its historically weak tertiary sector has meant that the city was, at that time, a poor location for the so-called ‘high tech’ industries. As a local historian concluded at that time:

Coventry in the mid 1980s displays none of the confidence in the future that was so apparent in the immediate post-war years. . The city, which for decades was the natural habitat of the affluent industrial worker is finding it difficult to adjust to a situation where the local authority and university rank among the largest employers. Coventry’s self-image of progressiveness and modernity has all but vanished. The citizens now largely identify themselves and their environment as part of a depressed Britain. 

This was a sad contrast to the vibrant city of full employment in which my mother had grown up in the thirties and forties and where she had met and married my father in the early fifties. By the time I returned there as a teacher, from a former mill town in Lancashire in 1986 which had recovered from its own decline in the sixties and seventies, Coventry was also beginning to recover, but the shiny new comprehensive schools built thirty years before were already beginning to merge and close due to these years of recession, unemployment and outward migration.

Revolution or retro-capitalism?

Thatcher’s government of 1979-83 was not the return of ‘Victorian Val’, a revival of Gladstonian liberalism, nor even of the Palmerstonian gunboat imperialism which it sometimes resembled in its rhetoric. It was more of a reversion to the hard-faced empire of the 1920s when war socialism was energetically dismantled, leaving industries that could survive and profit to do so and those which couldn’t to go to the wall. As in the twenties, resistance to brutal rationalisation through closure or sell-off of uneconomic enterprises, or by wage or job reductions, was eventually to be met by determined opposition in the confrontation of 1984-5 between Thatcher and the NUM, led by Arthur Scargill, a battle comprehensively won by the PM.

The trouble with this ‘retro-capitalism’ masquerading as innovation was that sixty years after the policy had first been implemented, the regions that were the weaker species in this Darwinian competition were not just suffering from influenza, but prostrate with pneumonia. They were now being told to drop dead. These included South Wales, Lancashire, the West Riding, Tyneside and Clydeside. Those regions which had risen to extraordinary prosperity as part of the British imperial enterprise were now, finally, being written off as disposable assets in a sale. What interest would the Welsh and Scots, in particular, have in remaining part of Great Britain plc? They were also now being joined by those same manufacturing areas which had provided respite for millions of migrants from the older industrial areas in the thirties, centres such as Coventry. The euphoria felt by the Conservatives following their unexpected second victory in 1983 disguised the fact that their majority was built at the price of perpetuating a deep rift in Britain’s social geography. Not since Edward I in the thirteenth century had a triumphant England imposed its rule on the other nations of Britain.

Thatcher’s constituency was not, however, to be found among the engineers of ‘Middle England’ or even the Lincolnshire grocers from whom she hailed, who might have voted for Ted Heath’s ‘Third Way’ Tories. It was overwhelmingly to be found among the well-off middle and professional classes in the south of England, in the Home Counties, or the ‘golden circle’ commuter areas. The distressed northern zones of derelict factories, pits, ports and decrepit terraced houses were left to rot and rust. The solution of her governments, in so far as they had one, was to let the employment market and good old Gladstonian principles of ‘bootstrap’ self-help take care of the problem. People living in areas of massive redundancy amidst collapsing industries ought simply to ‘retrain’ for work in the up-and-coming industries of the future or, in Norman Tebbitt’s famous phrase, “get on their bikes” like their grandfathers had done and move to places such as Milton Keynes, Basingstoke or Cambridge where those opportunities were now clustered. But this vision of ex-welders, or even assembly workers, lining up to use computers was not helped by the absence of such publicly funded retraining. And even if it was available, there was no guarantee of a job at the end of it, no apprenticeship system. The whole point of the computer revolution in industry was to save, not to expand labour. The new jobs it created could, and would be taken by the sons and daughters of the industrial workers of the early eighties, but not by those workers themselves.

Finally, the kick-up-the-rear-end effect of the eighties’ Thatcher counter-revolution ran into something that she could do little about; the Coronation Street syndrome. Like the residents of the mythical TV soap opera, millions in the old British industrial economy had a deeply ingrained loyalty to the place where they had grown up, gone to school, got married and had their kids; to their extended family with older generations, to their pub, their parks and hills, to their football or rugby club. In that sense, at least, the post-war social revolution and welfare state had helped to maintain and even develop towns and cities that, for all their ups and downs, their poverty and pain, were real communities. Fewer people were willing to give up on these places than had been the case fifty years earlier, and certainly not on cities like Liverpool, Leeds, Nottingham, Derby and Coventry. But not everything the Thatcher government did was out of tune with social ‘harmony’. The sale of council-houses created an owner-occupier class which corresponded to the long passion of the British to be kings and queens of their own little castles. Nationalised industries were failing to take advantage of enterprise and innovation. But many of these more popular reforms were to come after her confrontation with the miners and especially in her third term.

Sources:

Gwyn A Williams (1985), When Was Wales? A History of the Welsh. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Dai Smith (1984), Wales! Wales?  Hemel Hempstead: George Allen & Unwin.

Bill Lancaster & Tony Mason (1984), Life & Labour in a Twentieth Century City: The Experience of Coventry. Coventry: University of Warwick Cryfield Press.

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

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

Posted September 26, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in Affluence, Britain, British history, Cartoons, Castles, Coalfields, Colonisation, Conquest, Conservative Party, Coventry, decolonisation, democracy, Demography, devolution, Empire, Europe, European Economic Community, Factories, Falklands, History, Immigration, Imperialism, Labour Party, manufacturing, Marxism, Methodism, Midlands, Migration, Militancy, monetarism, Monuments, Mythology, Narrative, National Health Service (NHS), nationalisation, nationalism, Nationality, Nonconformist Chapels, Population, Revolution, south Wales, terrorism, Thatcherism, Trade Unionism, Unemployment, Victorian, Wales, Welfare State, Welsh language, West Midlands, World War Two

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The Latter Day Elizabethan Britons, 1952-2002; Chapter Three.   Leave a comment

Chapter Three: A Multi-cultural Society?

 020

By the end of the 1950s, although the populations of the nations and regions of the British Isles had become more permanently mixed than ever before, and added to by those refugees from central and eastern Europe who had now been exiled by the triumph of Soviet Communism in the establishment of the Warsaw Pact, as yet there had been very little New Commonwealth immigration to Britain. It was only in the sixties and seventies that the country began to be transformed into what came to be known as a multi-cultural society.

 

Following the wartime Emigracja – immigration to Britain, there was a further wave of Poles arriving in the UK between 1950 and 1971. According to the 1971 Census, this amounted to 13,470 persons, seventy-five per cent of whom were women. Some of these were relatives of previous refugees who had decided to stay, while others were traditional devout Catholics and anti-Communists. The Polish Educational Society Abroad was established in Britain with the main aim of giving financial support and assistance to Polish voluntary schools in order to maintain Polishness by educating the children of Polish parents and preparing them for their return to Poland. The beginning of the Polish schools in Britain goes back to the 1950s when Polish parents began to be seriously concerned about the maintenance of Polishness in their children. While the underlying motive was the return to the homeland, the need to establish schools was also driven by the concern that, with Poland under Communist rule, many families did not know when they would be able to return safely and permanently. While, at first, the schools were located in private houses, later they moved into the halls of Polish churches throughout the country. When the numbers grew and they could no longer be accommodated in the church halls, more space had to be hired in state schools. In 1977 it was estimated that there were eighty-eight Polish Saturday Schools with over seven thousand pupils. In addition, the Polish Scout and Guide Movement was formed in the 1950s, a nationalistic exile group centred in London with, by 1961, an organisational network in over twenty countries. In that year, there were one and a half thousand Polish boy scouts and a thousand guides in Britain, with a further four hundred Rovers and six hundred adult members of attached groups. The organisation reinforced the work of the Saturday Schools by offering invaluable opportunities for using and developing the Polish language in a variety of realistic communication settings.

Following the unsuccessful Hungarian Uprising and Soviet invasion of October – November 1956, people from all classes and groups who had suffered under the Communist repressions and who feared reprisals for having participated in the uprising, found their way to Britain. Many of them were en route to the USA, but of the two hundred thousand who fled Hungary, about twenty-six thousand were admitted to the UK for settlement. Three Hungarian Associations were formed in the 1950s, the British Hungarian Fellowship in London being one of them. In addition, three associations were formed between 1965 and 1971. Otherwise, the Hungarian expatriates seem not to have been so determined to maintain their separate cultural identity in their host country, becoming fully integrated in British society within a short period of settlement, though keeping up their familial ties with their home country. This may have much to do with the relative freedoms of travel and association allowed during the period of Goulash Communism, especially from the early 1970s, and partly to do with the relative difficulty of learning and using Hungarian outside the home environment, even when both parents were native-speakers. Only in London was this ever a real possibility.

 

During and immediately after the Second World War about forty thousand Ukrainians found refuge in the UK, none of them having left their home country of their own free will. The majority of those who settled permanently in the UK came from the rural areas of western Ukraine, and only about three per cent had completed secondary and tertiary schooling (to eighteen) before arriving in Britain. They were employed in low-paid jobs in agriculture, mining and textiles, in domestic service and as ancillary personnel in hospitals. After a time they moved to better-paid jobs, encouraged their children to do well at school, so that it is sometimes suggested that, as a result of strong family ties and parents’ ambitions for their children, the proportions of Ukrainian children who gained academic success at the various educational levels were greater than the national levels. The Ukrainians who settled in Britain were predominantly male, young and single. Only about ten per cent were women, so Ukrainian men had to look outside the community for marriage partners, mainly among other continental settled in Britain. Later, about two thousand displaced Ukrainian women came to Britain from refugee settlements in Poland and Yugoslavia following the decade between when Ukraine became part of the Soviet Union again, and Poland was forced to join the Warsaw Pact in 1955.

Of the first émigrés, who were predominantly male, about forty per cent didn’t marry, and a large percentage of the rest, maybe half, married non-Ukrainian women. The majority of them hoped at first that they would be able to return to the Ukraine. Most, however, learnt some English in their workplaces. Those who married Ukrainian partners use their native tongue when speaking with them and, in most cases, with their children. A minority considered that speaking Ukrainian at home would be detrimental to their children’s education, however, and so deliberately avoided using the language in the family. Second generation British Ukrainians used English in their workplaces and with friends, in places of entertainment, while using Ukrainian with parents and older members of the exile community, switching to English to talk to Ukrainians of their own generation. They were also encouraged to use Ukrainian in the Saturday schools, meetings and camps of youth organisations. During rehearsals of choirs or dance groups, popular among the second generation, they often used both languages to describe events or experiences connected with these. This was regarded within the community as a sign of language loss rather than of retention in the bilingual setting.

Throughout the sixties and seventies, due to the political situation in the USSR, and its international relations, contacts with the home country were limited and, despite the efforts made by the community to preserve the language, there were significantly fewer third generation speakers. The community life revolved around the churches, principally the Ukrainian Roman Catholic Church and the Autocephalous Eastern Orthodox Church, together with a variety of organisations catering for women, young people, ex-servicemen, students and professionals. It also built a number of properties in addition to churches, including cultural centres and school premises, commercial enterprises, summer camps and retirement homes. Family and personal contacts mainly took the form of correspondence, and well-chaperoned choirs and dance groups from the Ukraine sometimes toured the UK. In the Brezhnev years there was freer intercourse with Ukrainians living in Poland and Yugoslavia, with many more exchange visits taking place. In Ukraine itself, the language came under strong Russian influence, whereas the majority of first-generation British Ukrainians spoke a rural variety of Western Ukrainian at home. In 1966, there were nearly two and a half thousand pupils attending forty-three Ukrainian Saturday Schools throughout Britain, run by over two hundred teaching staff. The curriculum consisted of Ukrainian language, literature, history, geography, religion and folklore. Pupils had two or three hours of classes a week over eleven or twelve years, starting with nursery classes. A GCE Ordinary level examination in Ukrainian became available in 1954, and the language became available as a subsidiary subject at the University of London in 1970. Coventry LEA was the first to provide material support for community Saturday schools.

In the postwar years, the Greek Cypriot community in Britain grew significantly and came from a variety of backgrounds. There had been a sizeable group in interwar and wartime Britain, but it was after the war that substantial numbers of Greek Cypriot men arrived, followed by their families as soon as they had found a permanent job and reasonable housing. The 1955-60 Independence struggle gave rise to further immigration to Britain, as did the civil struggles in 1963 and the invasion by Turkey in 1974, so that the estimated Greek Cypriot population in the UK reached two hundred thousand. This meant that one Cypriot in every six was living in Britain by the late seventies. While the largest part of this population was concentrated in London, there was also much smaller but still significant community in Birmingham. Greek Cypriots left their homes mainly for economic reasons. Most of them came to Britain to find work and improve their standard of living. The largest section came from the lower socio-economic groups. They set out with high aspirations, confident in their hard-working nature, and supported by the strong feeling of solidarity which bonded them to their compatriots. In the fifties and early sixties Greek Cypriots worked mainly in the service sector, in catering, in the clothing and shoe manufacturing industries, in hairdressing and in grocery retailing. In the villages in Cyprus, most of the women’s work was confined to the household and the fields, but in Britain a substantial number went to work in the clothing industry, either as machinists in small factories or as out-workers sewing clothes at home at piecework rates.

By the late sixties self-employment was becoming more common among Greek Cypriot men who had established a variety of small businesses – restaurants, estate agents, travel agencies, building firms, etc. – building gradually what Constandinides (1977) called an ethnic economy. These small businesses often provided goods and services primarily for other Cypriots, although by the second generation there was a tendency to move away from these traditional forms of employment. Their interests moved away from the world of kebab takeaways and Mediterranean grocery shops into the more successful and highly competitive world of property development, manufacturing industry, import-export, travel and tourism, printing and publishing. Mother tongue teaching activities were inevitably concentrated in the areas of greatest Greek settlement, the first classes, in Haringey, dating back to 1955, while classes in Coventry were established around 1963. Children spent between one and four hours per week at these community-run classes.

 004 (2)

In Coventry, the small wartime Indian community had expanded to an estimated four thousand by 1954, occupying some of the more rundown housing stock to the north of the city. Like other immigrants to Coventry at this time – the Welsh, the Irish, Poles and Ukrainians, the Indians were keen to protect their own religious and cultural identity. In October 1952, Muslim members of the Indian community applied to the Planning and Redevelopment Committee for separate burial facilities and land for the building of a Mosque. Although relatively few in number, Coventry’s Indian community was already beginning to experience the racial prejudice that was already beginning to disfigure Britain nationally. It was also soon reported that local estate agents were operating a colour bar. It has already been noted how trades unions and management in the car factories agreed measures to keep them from working on the production lines, relegated to menial cleaning tasks. In October 1954 the editor of the Coventry Standard had reported that a branch of the AEU had approached Miss Burton M.P. on this subject. He commented:

The presence of so many coloured people in Coventry is becoming a menace. Hundreds of black people are pouring into the larger cities of Britain including Coventry and are lowering the standard of life. They live on public assistance and occupy common lodging houses to the detriment of suburban areas. … They frequently are the worse for liquor – many of them addicted to methylated spirits – and live in overcrowded conditions sometimes six to a room.

This article was not the juvenile outpourings of a bigoted cub reporter but the major editorial. Racism appears to have infected a wide spectrum of Coventry society by the mid-fifties as it had also begun to infect the country as a whole. Change was not comfortable for many to live with, and not always easy to understand, and it was easy to project the problems which it presented in everyday life into stereotypical images, as this extract from the transcript of a BBC archive disc shows:

It is getting too bad now. They’re too many in the country and they’re over-running it. If they come into this country, they should be made to live to the same standards as we live, and not too many in their house as they always have done, unless someone puts their foot down. They bring in diseases and all sorts of things that spread to different people, and your children have to grow up with them and it’s not right.

 017

Above: The Windrush Generation: One of the first Jamaican immigrants seeking work and lodgings in Birmingham in 1955.

They in this extract were, of course, immigrants from the West Indies and Pakistan and/ or India who, from the mid-fifties on, came in substantial numbers into the booming cities and industries. Many West Indian immigrants encountered considerable racial prejudice when seeking accommodation. A teenage motor-cycle maniac who was still living with his parents and knew that every time he went out they were on edge, could casually remark about going down Notting Hill Gate… to punch a few niggers up. The scene soon shifted onto a bigger backcloth, and from Notting Hill to Nottingham, but the story was the same, and one which was to become more and more familiar over the coming decades – one of growing intolerance, if not cultural bigotry, in British society. In August 1958, as violence against coloured immigrants became a serious problem, The Times reported on the demands for immigration controls being made by Conservative MPs:

Seeing the Nottingham fight between coloured and white people on Saturday night a red light warning of further troubles to come, some Conservative M.P.s intend to renew their demand for control to be placed on immigration from the Commonwealth and the colonies when Parliament reassembles in October… A resolution is on the agenda for the Conservative Party Conference. It has been tabled by Mr Norman Pannell, Conservative M.P. for the Kirkdale division of Liverpool, who obtained the signatures of about thirty Conservative M.P.s for a motion (never debated) during the last session of Parliament. This expressed the growing disquiet over ’the continuing influx of indigent immigrants from the Commonwealth and colonies, thousands of whom have immediately sought National Assistance’. Mr Pannell said yesterday, ’… The Nottingham fighting is a manifestation of the evil results of the present policy and I feel that unless some restriction is imposed we shall create the colour-bar we all wish to avoid… The object of my representation is to get some control, not to bar all colonial and Commonwealth immigration, but to see that the immigrants shall not be a charge on public funds, and that they are deported when they are guilty of serious crimes.

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Paradoxically, then, just as Britain was retreating from its formal imperial commitments, Commonwealth immigration into Britain, principally from the West Indies and South Asia, was becoming an increasingly important issue in domestic politics. During the 1950s, the number of West Indians entering Britain reached annual rates of thirty thousand. Immigration from the Indian subcontinent began to escalate from the 1960s onwards. The census of 1951 recorded seventy-four thousand New Commonwealth immigrants; ten years later the figure had increased to 336,000, climbing to 2.2 million in 1981. Immigration from the New Commonwealth was driven by a combination of push and pull factors. Partition of the Indian subcontinent and the construction of the Mangla Dam in Pakistan had displaced large numbers of people, many of whom had close links with Britain through the colonial connection.

In Britain, postwar reconstruction, declining birth rates and labour shortages resulted in the introduction of government schemes to encourage Commonwealth workers, especially from the West Indies, to seek employment in Britain. Jamaicans and Trinidadians were recruited directly by agents to fill vacancies in the British transport network and the newly created National Health Service. Private companies also recruited labour in India and Pakistan for factories and foundries in Britain. As more and more Caribbean and South Asian people settled in Britain, patterns of chain migration developed, in which pioneer migrants aided friends and relatives to settle. Despite the influx of immigrants after the war, however, internal migration within the British Isles continued to outpace overseas immigration.

 013Above: West Indians in London in 1956. About 125,000 people from the Caribbean came to live in Britain

between 1948 and 1958, hoping to escape the poverty in their home islands.

The importance attached to the Commonwealth in the 1950s prevented the imposition of immigration controls on New Commonwealth citizens. However, by the 1960s, Britain’s retreat from the Commonwealth in favour of Europe and events such as the Notting Hill and Nottingham race riots in 1958 heralded a policy of restriction, which gradually whittled away at the right of New Commonwealth citizens to automatic British naturalisation. Although the 1962 Immigration Act was intended to reduce the inflow of blacks and Asians into Britain, it had the opposite effect: fearful of losing the right of free entry, as many immigrants came to Britain in the eighteen months before restrictions were introduced as had arrived over the previous five years.  

 

The census of 1961 showed the 1954 estimate of Asians living in Coventry to be an exaggeration. In fact, immigration from the new Commonwealth over the previous ten years had been a trickle rather than a stream, accounting for only 1.5 per cent of the population compared with 6.1 per cent from Ireland, including the North. The total number of immigrants from India and Pakistan was less than three thousand five hundred, and there were about another one thousand two hundred immigrants from the Caribbean as a whole. Between the census of 1961 and the mini-census of 1966, however, some major shifts in the pattern of migration into Coventry did take place. A substantial increase in immigration from Commonwealth countries, colonies and protectorates had taken place during the previous five years. The total number of those born in these territories stood at 11,340. The expansion needs to be kept in perspective, however. Nearly two-thirds of the local population were born in the West Midlands, and there were still nearly twice as many migrants from Ireland as from the Commonwealth and Colonies. Indeed, in 1966 only 3.5 per cent of Coventry’s population had been born outside Britain, compared with the national figure of five per cent. The Welsh stream had slowed down, increasing by only eight per cent in the previous fifteen years, and similar small increases were registered among migrants from Northern England. There were significant increases from Scotland, London and the South East, but only a very small increase from continental Europe.

The rate of migration into Coventry was undoubtedly slowing down by the mid-sixties. Between 1961 and 1971 the population rose by nearly six per cent compared with a rise of nineteen per cent between 1951 and 1961. The failure of Coventry’s manufacturing industry to maintain immediate post-war growth rates was providing fewer opportunities for migrant manual workers, while the completion of the city centre redevelopment programme and the large housing schemes reduced the number of itinerant building workers. Between 1951 and 1966 the local population increased by approximately four thousand every year, but in the following five years the net annual increase fell to about a thousand per annum. Moreover, the proportion of this increase attributable to migration had dramatically declined. Between 1951 and 1961, a Department of the Environment survey estimated that migration accounted for about forty-five per cent of population growth in the Coventry belt, whereas in the following five years it made up only eighteen per cent. In the following three years to 1969 the survey noted that the same belt had begun, marginally, to lose population through out-migration.

 018

The 1968 Immigration Act was specifically targeted at restricting Kenyan Asians with British passports. The same year, Conservative MP for Wolverhampton and government minister, Enoch Powell made a speech in Birmingham, that contained a classical illusion that most people took to be a prophecy of violent racial war if black immigration continued:

As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding. Like the Roman, I seem to see ’the river Tiber foaming with much blood’.

 

The speech became known as The Rivers of Blood Speech, and formed the backdrop of the legislation. Although Powell was sacked from the Cabinet by the Tory Prime Minister, Edward Heath, more legislative action followed with the 1971 Immigration Act, which effectively restricted citizenship on racial grounds by enacting the Grandfather Clause, by which a Commonwealth citizen who could prove that one of his or her grandparents was born in the UK was entitled to immediate entry clearance. This operated to the disadvantage of Black and Asian applicants, while favouring citizens of the old Commonwealth, descendants of white settlers from Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa. Thus immigration control had moved away from primary immigration to restricting the entry of dependents, or secondary immigration.

 004

The employment available to new immigrants in 1971 continued to be restricted to poorly paid, unskilled labour. In addition, since the mid-fifties, many West Indians faced prejudice in finding private rented accommodation and all new Commonwealth immigrants faced official discrimination in the residency requirements for council housing.

019

To overcome this prejudice, immigrants to Birmingham tended to congregate in poorer inner city areas or in the western suburbs along the boundary with Smethwick, Warley, West Bromwich (now Sandwell), and Dudley, where many of them also settled. As in Coventry, there was a small South Asian presence of about a hundred, in Birmingham before the war, and this had risen to about a thousand by the end of the war. These were mainly workers recruited by the Ministry of Labour to work in the munitions factories. Birmingham’s booming postwar economy attracted West Indian settlers from Jamaica, Barbados and St Kitts in the 1950s, followed by South Asians from Gujarat and the Punjab in India, and Bangladesh from the 1960s onwards.

 012

By 1971, the South Asian and West Indian populations were equal in size and concentrated in the inner city wards and in north-west Birmingham, especially in Handsworth, Sandwell and Sparkbrook. Labour shortages had developed in Birmingham as a result of an overall movement towards more skilled and white-collar employment among the native population, which created vacancies in the poorly paid, less attractive, poorly paid , unskilled and semi-skilled jobs in manufacturing, particularly in metal foundries and factories, and in the transport and health care sectors of the public services. These jobs were filled by newcomers from the new Commonwealth. In the 1970s, poor pay and working conditions forced some of these workers to resort to strike action. Hostility to Commonwealth immigrants was pronounced in some sections of the local white population. One manifestation of this was the establishment of the Birmingham Immigration Control Association, founded in the early 1960s by a group of Tory MPs.

In Coventry, despite these emerging signs of a stall in population growth by the end of the sixties, the authorities continued to view the city and its surrounds as a major area of demographic expansion. In October 1970 a Ministry of Housing representative predicted that the city’s population would rise by a third over the next twenty years. The economic boom under the Conservative Heath government and Anthony Barber’s Chancellorship, which greatly benefited the local motor industry, temporarily reversed the stall in population growth. By 1974, it was estimated that the local population was rising by two thousand per year, twice the rate of the late 1960s. By 1976, however, the youthfulness of the city’s population was being lost as the proportion of over sixty-five year-olds rose above the national average. By the mid-seventies Coventry was faced with a new challenge posed by changes in the age-structure of its population. The city was having to care for its increasing numbers of elderly citizens, a cost which soon became difficult to bear, given its declining economy. Coventry, with its large migrant element, began to lose population rapidly during this decline, from 335,238 to 310,216 between 1971 and 1981, a fall of 7.5 per cent. Nearly sixty thousand jobs were lost during the recession, and given the shallowness of the family structure of many Coventrians, this resulted in a sizeable proportion of its citizens being all too willing to seek their fortune elsewhere. For many others, given the widespread nature in the decline in manufacturing in the rest of the UK, there was simply nowhere to go.

 007

As New Commonwealth immigrants began to become established in postwar Birmingham, community infrastructures, including places of worship, ethnic groceries, halal butchers and, most significantly, restaurants, began to develop. Birmingham in general became synonymous with the phenomenal rise of the ubiquitous curry house, and Sparkbrook in particular developed unrivalled Balti restaurants. These materially changed patterns of social life in the city among the native population. In addition to these obvious cultural contributions, the multilingual setting in which English exists today became more diverse in the sixties and seventies, especially due to immigration from the Indian subcontinent and the Caribbean. The largest of the community languages is Punjabi, with over half a million speakers, but there are also substantial communities of Gujarati speakers, as many as a third of a million, and up to a hundred thousand Bengali speakers.

 006

Within the British West Indian community, Jamaican English, or the patois – as it is known – has had a special place as a token of identity. While there were complicated social pressures that frowned on Jamaican English in Jamaica, with parents complaining when their children talk local too much, in England it became almost obligatory to do so in London. One Jamaican schoolgirl who made the final passage to the Empire’s capital city with her parents in the seventies put it like this:

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

 011

Despite the mixed reception from her British West Indian friends, she persevered with the patois, and, as she put it after a year I lost my British accent, and was accepted. However, for many Caribbean visitors to Britain, the patois of Brixton and Notting Hill was a stylised form that was not, as they saw it, truly Jamaican, not least because British West Indians came from all parts of the Caribbean. Another West Indian schoolgirl, born in London and visiting Jamaica for the fist time, was teased for her patois. She was told that she didn’t sound right and that. The experience convinced her that…

in London the Jamaicans have developed their own language in patois, sort of. ’Cos they make up their own words in London, in, like, Brixton. And then it just develops into patois as well.


Researchers found that there were already white children in predominantly black schools who had begun using the British West Indian patois in order to be accepted by the majority of their friends, who were black:

I was born in Brixton and I’ve been living here for seventeen years, and so I just picked it up from hanging around with my friends who are mainly Black people. And so I can relate to them by using it, because otherwise I’d feel an outcast… But when I’m with someone else who I don’t know I try to speak as fluent English as possible. It’s like I feel embarrassed about it (the patois), I feel like I’m degrading myself by using it.

 

The unconscious racism of such comments pointed to the predicament of the Black Britons. Not fully accepted, for all their rhetoric, by the established native population, they felt neither fully Caribbean nor fully British. This was the poignant outcome of what the British Black writer Caryl Phillips called The Final Passage. Phillips, who came to Britain as a baby in the late 1950s, was one of the first of his generation to grapple with the problem of finding a means of literary self-expression that was true to his experience:

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

 

In his novel, The Final Passage, the narrative is in Standard English. But the speech of the characters is a rendering of nation language:

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

 

The lesson of this college is, as Phillips puts it, that symptomatic of the colonial situation, the language has been divided as well. In the British Black community, and in the English-speaking islands of the Caribbean, English – creole or standard – was the only available language.

 020

The story of 1970s Britain, whether viewed from an economic, social or cultural perspective can be summed up by one word, albeit a long one – deindustrialisation. By 1977, if not before, its role as the world’s first and leading industrial nation was finally over, just as its time as an imperial power had effectively ended fifteen years earlier, as Dean Acheson had commented. It was another question as to whether the British people and politicians were prepared to accept these salient facts and move on. Employment in manufacturing reached a peak of nine million in 1966. It thereafter fell rapidly, reaching four million by 1994. Much of this loss was sustained in the older industries of Northwest England, but the bulk of it was spread across the newer industrial areas of the Midlands and Southeast (see map). As with the processes of industrialisation two centuries before, Britain led the way in what was to become a common experience of all the mature industrial nations. The so-called maturity thesis suggested that, as industry developed and became more technologically sophisticated, it required less labour. At the same time, rising living standards meant that more wealth was available, beyond what would normally be spent on basic necessities and consumer goods, giving rise to a growing demand for services such as travel, tourism and entertainment. By 1976, services had become the largest area of employment in all the regions of Britain.

Another problem faced by the manufacturing sector was the long-standing British taste for imported goods. Many observers noted that not only was the country failing to compete internationally, but British industry was also losing its cutting edge when competing with foreign imports in the domestic market. The problem of deindustrialisation therefore became entwined with the debate over Britain’s long decline as a trading nation, going back over a century. It was seen not only as an economic decline, but as a national failure, ownership of which in speeches and election propaganda, even in education, struck deep within the collective British cultural psyche.

There were three periods of severe recession, but here we are only concerned with the first of these, from 1973-75. British industry’s share of world trade fell dramatically during these years, and by 1975 it was only half what it had been in the 1950s, to just ten per cent. Nor could it maintain its hold on the domestic market. A particularly extreme example of this was the car industry: in 1965, with Austin minis selling like hot-cakes, only one car in twenty was imported, but by 1978 nearly half were. In addition, many of the staple industries of the nineteenth century, such as coal and shipbuilding, continued to decline as employers, surviving only, if at all, through nationalisation. In addition, many of the new industries of the 1930s, including the car industry, were seemingly in terminal decline by the 1970s, as we have seen in the case of Coventry. Therefore, deindustrialisation was no longer simply a problem of old Britain, it was also one for new England. It was also a problem for East Anglia, because although it was not so dependent on manufacturing, and services were growing, agriculture had also declined considerably (see map).

A great variety of explanations for the decline in British industrial competitiveness were put forward, and have continued to be debated since. None of these explanations has proved wholly satisfactory, however. One explanation suggests that there is a cultural obstacle, that the British have been conditioned to despise industry. This might be a relevant argument to apply for new England, with an industrial heritage going back only two or three generations, and to old England, the traditional rural areas, although even in these areas it would be something of a stereotype, but it would be difficult to apply to old Britain, with its generations of coal miners, shipbuilders, foundry and factory workers. During the depression years of the 1930s many of these workers, finding themselves unemployed, had, like the father of Norman Tebbitt (Margaret Thatcher’s Party Chairman in the late seventies) got on their bikes, or walked long distances, in their hundreds of thousands to find work in the new manufacturing areas. With no jobs to find anywhere in the seventies, these were pretty pointless words of advice. Pointless or not, Tebbitt’s speech was picked up by the popular Tory press and appeared in the banner On Your Bike headlines which have since become so emblematic of the Thatcher era. Unfortunately, the same press used them to put forward a related argument that the British were not sufficiently materialistic to work hard for the rewards associated with improved productivity. Complacency from generations of national success has also been blamed, as has the Welfare State’s cosseting of both the workforce and those out of work.

Alternatively, the government’s failure adequately to support research and development has been blamed, together with the exclusive cultural and educational backgrounds of Westminster politicians, government ministers and civil servants. This exclusivity, it is argued, left them ignorant of, and indifferent to, the needs of industry. Obstructionist trade unions were a favourite target of many, particularly after the coal dispute of 1971-72, which led to a series of power cuts throughout the country and a three-day working week. Management incompetence or short-termism, leading to an abdication of responsibility and the failure to restructure factories and industries, was seen as another cause and this, as seen in the case of Coventry, was an argument which had some local evidence to support it, although unions were sometimes equally short-sighted in some instances.

 024

Britain’s falling competitiveness was making it difficult, throughout most of the seventies, for governments to maintain high employment by intervening in the economy. Since 1945 successive governments had followed the tenets of the economist J M Keynes, borrowing in order to create jobs if unemployment approached a figure deemed as unacceptable (in the 1970s this was about six hundred thousand). During the decade, this became increasingly difficult to do as Edward Heath’s government (1970-74) struggled to follow such policies in the face of a global recession associated with the tripling of oil prices in 1973, by OPEC (the international cartel of oil producers). This caused immediate recession and fuelled international inflation. Attacks on trade union power were becoming more popular owing to a growing perception that they had become too powerful and disruptive, holding the country to ransom. The Second Wilson Labour administration that followed faced a huge balance-of-payments crisis and the tumbling value of the pound and they soon found themselves under the control of the IMF (International Monetary Fund), which insisted on severe spending cuts. The contraction of manufacturing began to accelerate and inflation was also increasing alarmingly, reaching twenty-four per cent by 1975. It came to be seen as a more urgent problem than unemployment and there was a national and international move to the right and against high-taxing and high-spending governments. Demands were made that they should stop propping up lame duck industries with public money or by taking them, however temporarily, into public ownership.

 001

Keynes’ argument had been that keeping workers in employment multiplied the effect through the economy as they spent part of their incomes on goods and services was shown to operate in the opposite direction through the effects of rising unemployment. However, the majority of people of working and voting age had no adult memory of their own of the 1930s, and radical politicians were able to exploit these demographics to their advantage to argue the case for monetarism with tight controls on public spending. In these circumstances, voters felt that spending public money on ailing industries was wasteful and inappropriate, especially as it raised their tax burden.

Printed Sources:

Barry Cunliffe, Asa Briggs, et.al. (eds.) (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British and Irish History. London: Penguin Books.

McCrum, Cran & MacNeil, (eds.) (1986), The Story of English. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Michael Clark & Peter Tweed (eds.) (1972), Portraits and Documents: The Twentieth Century. London: Hutchinson.

Safder Alladina & Viv Edwards (eds.) (1991), Multilingualism in the British Isles I: The Older Mother Tongues and Europe. Harlow: Longman.

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

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

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

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

Derek Wilson (1997), A Short History of Suffolk. London: Batsford.

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