General Election memories 1: 1979

Politics - First Female Prime Minister - Downing Street - 1979

Peterborough.   May 3rd 1979.

I’ll let you into a secret. I don’t actually remember the 1979 General Election at all. I was born in December 1976 so was not even two and a half years old n May 1979. I’m not sure I even knew an election was going on, let alone one of the four most pivotal General Elections of the 20th century. Had you asked me, I doubt I’d have had any clear views on either the merits of monetarism, the impact of the Winter of Discontent or even on who should succeed James Callaghan as leader of the Labour Party.

I was basically an idiot.

Instead, I wasted my time with such trifles as learning to talk (something I’ve still not entirely mastered), filling time between episodes of Jamie and the Magic Torch and throwing tantrums. I lived in Peterborough with my parents (who were both then about the same age that I am now), an older brother who was just entering his teens and a sister who was nearly ten.

I’m not convinced I would have enjoyed the election much anyway. I have grown up to be a Labour supporter and 1979 was to prove a bad year for Labour. Labour had been heading for victory only a few months before with Prime Minister Jim Callaghan always more popular than his opponent, the eventual victor, Margaret Thatcher. This fact suggests to me in itself that Labour’s stint in office was not the unmitigated disaster some have subsequently claimed it was. But the series of crippling strikes dubbed “the Winter of Discontent” wrecked Labour’s chances. The Tories fought a slick campaign. Thatcher held a calf in public at one point. Tory posters depicted long unemployment queues (in fact portrayed by Young Conservatives) proclaimed “Labour isn’t working”. Some might think this a bit of a cheek in retrospect. Unemployment was at 1.3 million and falling in May 1979. By 1980, under Thatcher, it had hit two million, a new post-war high. By 1982, it was at three million. By 1986, 3.4 million!

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At any rate, Labour lost. Peterborough’s Labour MP Michael Ward fell to Tory Dr Brian Mawhinney. An unknown named John Major would win his neighbouring seat of Huntington for the Tories. Mawhinney later revealed had been inspired to stand by a divine voice speaking to him on a visit to Peterborough Cathedral. At any rate, although no one knew it then, he and the Tories would hold power until 1997 (when Mawhinney cannily switched seats), then a tremendously futuristic science fiction year by which I, then a toddler, would be old enough to vote myself. Michael Ward died in 2009, but his daughter Alison Seabeck is an MP and Shadow Minister today. Her husband Nick Raynsford is also a Labour MP.

The Tories won a majority of 43. Labour got a bigger share of the vote than David Cameron’s Tories did in 2010. Callaghan lost despite being personally more popular than his opponent, Mrs. Thatcher. But please note: the least popular of the two main party leaders has never won a General Election in the years since. 1979 was unusual.

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Britain thus had its first woman Prime Minister albeit one who didn’t agree with Women’s Lib and didn’t even seem to like any other women very much. The Sun went Tory for the first time ever in 1979 and many followed its election day headline’s suggestion to “Give the girl a chance!”

I was blissfully unaware of all this, too afraid of fictional witches as portrayed in storybooks and on TV to worry about real life ones.

“Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is despair, may we bring hope,” the new Prime Minister said on arriving in Downing Street, claiming to be quoting Francis of Assisi.

In fact, St. Francis never said any such thing and we would soon learn that as an introduction to the Thatcher era, these words would prove staggeringly inappropriate.

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Book review: Crisis ? What Crisis? Britain in the 1970s

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Crisis What Crisis?: Britain in the 1970s.

Alwyn W. Turner.

Published: Aurum.

RRP: £9.99

“Crisis, what crisis?” The words were famously spoken by Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan in 1979 as he returned tanned and complacent from a tropical summit to learn that Britain had shuddered to a wintry strike bound halt in his absence.

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Except of course, Callaghan never actually said these words. Like Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” and  George W. Bush’s “Yo Blair!” the phrase actually came from somewhere else, in this case The Sun’s headline from the following day. In fact, as Alwyn W. Turner points out in this updated version of his well-researched 2008 book, the phrase predates The Sun’s usage and indeed even Callaghan’s premiership and was first used during the similarly troubled tenure of Tory Edward Heath a few years before. Turner even reveals its usage in the 1973 film version of the thriller, The Day of the Jackal.

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How different things could have been! For The Sun, in fairness, captured the essence of Callaghan’s reaction. “I don’t believe that people around the world would share the view that there is mounting chaos.” It was not his finest hour. For this was what would become known as the “Winter Of Discontent”, the series of strikes which would haunt Labour for decades. In the short run, the piles of uncollected rubbish and occasional disgraceful scenes of bodies being lefty unburied by striking gravediggers wrecked Labour’s chances in the 1979 election and propelled Mrs Thatcher to power.

As Turner reminds us, victory might easily have been Callaghan’s. Labour had actually been ahead in the opinion polls in late 1978 but Callaghan hesitated at the last minute, reasoning (not unreasonably): “Why run the risk of a very doubtful victory in October 1978, if we could convert it into a more convincing majority in 1979?”

But like Gordon Brown in 2007, Callaghan made a colossal error in postponing the election. He was always a more popular leader than Thatcher, who would doubtless have been ditched by the Tories had she lost in 1979, perhaps being replaced by Peter Walker or William Whitelaw. It is worth remembering that there were very few ardent Thatcher enthusiasts before 1979. Even Enoch Powell proclaimed voters “wouldn’t put up with those hats and that accent.”  The hats went and the accent changed. But Callaghan blew his chance to lead Britain into the Eighties. Had he had the chance, he might perhaps, have led the nation through a much less brutal version of Thatcherism in her place.

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Perhaps he was right to be wary of the opinion polls. The Seventies were an unpredictable and unstable decade. The keys to Downing Street changed hands four times between 1970 and 1979. They have only changed hands four times again in the thirty-five years since. The 1970 election saw Labour brutally and unexpectedly ejected in an electoral upset. Labour’s Harold Wilson buoyed by good opinion polls, had called the election a year earlier than he had to. But the polls were wrong. Edward Heath won a majority of thirty for the Tories instead. But Heath too fell foul of the polls three and a half years later when his crisis “Who Governs Britain?” election unexpectedly ended with a Labour led Hung Parliament in March 1974. Labour went onto under-perform electorally again, winning only a small majority of three in October of that year. By the time James Callaghan took over in the spring of 1976, Labour’s majority had almost vanished and a pact with the Liberals (ultimately a disaster for the smaller party, as it so often is) was just around the corner.

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Turner reminds us though that the decade was defined less by the politics of Wilson, Heath and Callaghan than by those of mavericks Enoch Powell and Anthony Wedgewood Benn. He is brilliant on the intense paranoia on both sides of the political spectrum about both men (Powell, particularly, was  portrayed in fictional form in books and on TV several times).

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But this is not purely a political account, far from it. As in his later books Rejoice! Rejoice! Britain in the 1980s and A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s, Turner is brilliantly thorough on all aspects of high and low culture as he is on affairs of state. Sometimes these are linked (as he does cleverly with the TV series I, Claudius and the machinations of the 1976 Labour leadership contest), sometimes they are not (football, music and sitcom are all covered thorough. The chapter on “Violence,” for example, covers The Troubles as well as A Clockwork Orange).

But this is another excellent history from Turner. As strong on Tom and Barbara as it is on Maggie and Jim. As thorough on Doctor Who as it is on Dr David Owen. Or as insightful on Mr. Benn as it is on the career of Mr. Tony Benn. It is well worth a read.

Prime Minister James Callaghan with Harold Wilson

Book Review: Margaret Thatcher The Authorized Biography. Volume One: Not For Turning. By Charles Moore

In the days immediately following Lady Thatcher’s death in April, some observers might have been forgiven for thinking that they had good cause to doubt the choice of official biographer handpicked by the former Prime Minister to chronicle her life and career. Appearing on BBC’s Question Time and elsewhere, former Daily Telegraph editor Charles Moore made a number of bizarre pronouncements. Lady Thatcher’s economic policies were a direct result of her gender apparently. The Lady played a major role in freeing Nelson Mandela too, we learned. She was not as apathetic about Apartheid as was previously thought. And, most eccentric of all, apparently Lady Thatcher wasn’t a divisive figure. This is just a myth propagated by the “left wing” BBC! Strange indeed. As anyone who watched it will know, the BBC’s coverage of the days following Lady Thatcher’s death was reverential in the extreme. Surely the fact that the first woman Prime Minister was divisive is the one thing everyone can agree on?

This did not bode well for the first volume of Moore’s biography which takes us from Lady Thatcher’s humble birth in 1925 to her “finest hour”: victory in the 1982 Falklands conflict. In fact, although inevitably sympathetic to his subject (it would be surprising were he not), this is actually a triumph.

Perhaps no Prime Minister has had a stronger mythology structured around her life than Margaret Thatcher. Somehow the stories of Tony Blair being in a rock band at Oxford or Ted Heath’s days in the Second World War have never caught the public’s imagination in the same way that Margaret Roberts’ rise from Grantham grocer’s daughter to Downing Street has.

Moore succeeds in making this well-worn subject, covered expertly in the past by the late Hugo Young, John Campbell and by the Lady herself, remarkably fresh and readable. He even uncovers new information. He exposes the lie that Denis was her first boyfriend. There were several others before him.

Perhaps the most extraordinary fact is that the young Margaret as revealed through frequent teenage letters to her sister Muriel was remarkably ordinary. She is far more interested in fashion, films and making ends meet than in the underlying progress of the Second World War (rarely mentioned in her letters). She is a perfectly normal girl – a little bossy perhaps, but hardworking. She is not unlike the parody of Margaret Hilda Roberts written by Adrian Mole author Sue Townsend twenty years ago. She was sneered at for taking elocution lessons by her lower class contemporaries. Like Richard Nixon, she developed a slight resentment of the privileged leftists who often sneered at her too, in her case at Oxford.

Denis remained bedrock of support throughout her life after their marriage in 1950 and is entertaining in the book. “Oh God. They look like rabbits. Put them back!” was his reported response on first seeing his twin children, Carol and Mark.

Inevitably, as her ambition grew, Margaret grew distant from her sister, father and old friends. Although she held her father up as her political inspiration on entering Downing Street in 1979 stating that she “owed everything” to him, in reality, she had seen little of him in the years after she became an MP in 1959 and his death in 1970. This is understandable. She was a mother of two, a rising politician and a young woman in a hurry.

It is hard now to appreciate just how unlikely it seemed that Thatcher would ever be PM in the years before it happened. She herself had set herself the ambition of being the first woman Chancellor of the Exchequer as the summit of her ambition (interestingly, this remains the only one of the great offices of state which no woman has held even now). She only stood in 1975 when it became clear that now largely forgotten figures like Edward du Cann and Keith Joseph were not up to the challenge of displacing Edward Heath. “Heath will murder you,” predicted Denis. He was wrong.

Even as Opposition Leader, her prospects of power looked remote. Heath, still in his early sixties and more popular than Thatcher always seemed poised to make a comeback. Prime Minister Jim Callaghan remained more popular than her too right up until the 1979 election. Only the mistiming of the election that never was by Sunny Jim (a mistake Gordon Brown repeated twenty-nine years later) and the ensuing “Winter of Discontent” ensured her General Election victory in May 1979 just as the Falklands conflict ensured her resurrection in office three years later.

This is a long book- over 700 pages long – taking us from 1925 until 1982. Moore overstates Thatcher’s role in ending the Cold War (it is very hard to see how even without Thatcher it wouldn’t have ended as it did anyway) but happily, despite his pro-Tory leanings keeps it entertaining throughout. Unlike the Lady herself, it never really feels like it’s going on and on and on. Volume II is keenly awaited.Image

Book review: Bang! A History of Britain in the 1980s by Graham Stewart

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Make no mistake: 1979 was a very long time ago. Let’s not have any of this “it seems like yesterday” bollocks. If it really does seem like yesterday, there is something seriously wrong with you.

Despite its name, this book actually begins in 1979. It is now 2013. The same amount of time has passed since 1979 as had passed between it and the end of the Second World War in 1945. When the same amount of time has passed again, it will be 2047. So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to find things have changed a fair bit. In 1979, you wouldn’t be reading a blog on your phone, a laptop or anywhere else,

Consider:  in 1979, the Labour Prime Minister (a man born before the First World War) was still at ease sitting round the Downing Street table with leading trade union figures. This was a time when some such union leaders spoke openly of Marxist revolution in Britain and believed this was apparently a realistic prospect. Leading Labour figures like Tony Benn spoke of nationalising almost all of British industry to enthusiastic mostly male smoke filled Labour conferences.

Flash forward to 1990 when this book ends and things start to see a lot more familiar. Not the same but a lot more like now. Seventies fashions had lost their grip.  Nobody had IPods yet but they had Walkmans at least and CDs were already replacing vinyl.  Mobile phones were still rare and huge but they did at least exist. Channel 4 was now on air and a small minority could now watch BSkyB (although a common joke of the time was that the average person was more likely to get BSE – the human form of mad cow disease- than BSkyB).  EastEnders was on.

Meanwhile, strikes were a rarity. The SDP had been and gone. The Labour Party, although still firmly out of power were also a lot more recognisable. Behind the scenes, Peter Mandelson was hard at work. The smoke filled conference halls were gone. Neil Kinnock, although never a popular figure with the public, was smartly dressed and in command, a far cry from the decent but scruffy Michael Foot. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, then in their late thirties were advancing fast up the Labour ranks. New Labour was on its way.

In my view, the 1980s transformed Britain more than any other peacetime decade in the last 150 years, except perhaps for the Sixties.

Much of this is doubtless due in no small measure to the personality and politics of Margaret Thatcher, who Stewart seems rather a fan of. I am rather less keen. The Lady was undeniably a fine war leader and by the Eighties, union power clearly needed curtailing.

But this was a bad decade for the British economy. Before the Winter of Discontent wrecked Labour for more than a decade, the Callaghan Government had been doing a fine job of pulling the UK back from the oil shock, the Barber Boom and the errors of Wilson’s final two years. But Callaghan’s gains and those made by the discovery of North Sea oil were squandered by Thatcher’s Monetarist experiment. Soon more than a fifth of the nation’s industrial base had been wiped out forever and high unemployment hung over the rest of the decade like a curse.

This was also the decade where the unrestrained power of the markets took hold and Rupert Murdoch was permitted unprecedented media power by the Thatcher Government. Both of these problems should have been addressed later by Major, Blair or Brown. But the Lady (as the late Alan Clark would lovingly refer to her) is the original source of responsibility here. Crime soared, the health service suffered and homeless levels rose unforgivably under Thatcher. A simple comparison of how the UK fared under her watch and that during Tony Blair’s decade (1997-2007) is damning.

By 1990, she had grown tremendously in confidence to the point of mental instability. Having seen off the Argies, the miners and Labour (three times: under Callaghan, Foot and Kinnock), she seemed convinced of her own infallibility. She even began speaking about herself using the royal “we” (famously: “we are a grandmother”).

But when she linked her destiny to that of the hated and ultimately unfair Community Charge (or “Poll Tax”) even the Tories recognised she had to go. John Major secured one more win for the Tories in 1992. But twenty three years on, the Tories have not recovered from her fall. No Tory leader since Major has won a General Election.

This is a slightly badly structured book with hard going chapters about monetarism rubbing shoulders with those about pop music and the singles of Madness. But it’s a story worth retelling especially if you want to terrify your left leaning children before they go to sleep.

Just remember: don’t have nightmares.