The Liberals in 1979


IMG_5975In 1979, the Liberals faced a general election that wasn’t going to be good news for the ruling Labour government. And that mattered because the Liberals under leader David Steel had been in a semi-official coalition with Labour since 1978 – the so-called Lib-Lab Pact.

Prime Minister James Callaghan had been expected to go for an election in late 1978 but changed his mind, deciding to hold out till the following year. Bad mistake. That winter saw major industrial unrest – the “winter of discontent” – and Labour’s hopes of winning another general election began to sink.

The Liberals struggled to distance themselves from the horse trading with the Labour leadership. They’d also been dogged in the late 70s by the Jeremy Thorpe affair. Their former leader, Thorpe, had been accused in court of being gay and plotting to kill his secret male lover. In 70s Britain, a far less tolerant place, this was toxic stuff. It still hung over the Liberals in 79.

IMG_5967Within the Liberal Party, their youth wing positioned themselves as a radical libertarian movement – even influenced by anarchist philosophy. Meanwhile, the Tories youth wing was veering rightwards while the Labour Party Young Socialists was under the control of the Marxist Militant Tendency. The Young Liberals published a magazine called Liberator pictured in this blog post.

Anyway, the election happened and the Liberals took a pounding helping Margaret Thatcher and her Conservative Party surge to power. Steel campaigned on rejecting the “Punch and Judy” politics of Labour and Tories saying the public was tired of swings leftwards and rightwards at every election. But the public decided otherwise – voting in the most right-wing Conservative government of the post-war era.

In the years that followed, the Liberals formed a new party – the Lib Dems – by allying with right of centre Labour politicians who deserted their party to form the Social Democrats.

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How the SNP put the Conservatives into power


Two parties brought the Labour government of Jim Callaghan to its knees – the Liberals and the Scottish Nationalists. Both might have ended up wondering if they’d done the right thing. The SNP was furious at Callaghan for not pushing through Scottish devolution.

Callaghan had let Scotland have a referendum on the condition that 40% of the electorate had to vote for devolution in order for it to progress. There was a majority at the ballot box for looser ties between Scotland and London – but the threshold wasn’t met. So Callaghan refused to take the matter further. The SNP tabled a no confidence vote and expected Liberal support – as they had now scrapped the Lib-Lab pact that had kept Callaghan’s minority government in power.

Callaghan joked rather drily that the SNP were the proverbial turkeys voting for Christmas. As it turned out, Margaret Thatcher wasted no time tabling her own no confidence vote, which was passed and the Labour government was forced into a general election.

The result of this for the SNP was disastrous. Hard to believe now but Tories took Scottish constituencies like Galloway, Perth, Aberdeen East, Argyll, etc. The SNP was crushed down to two MPs from a high point of eleven MPs in the 1974 election. I remember that for much of the 1980s, the SNP were taunted as ‘Tartan Tories’ for their part in bringing Callaghan down.

1982 – what issues gripped the left?


The first term of Thatcher – 1979 to 1983 – was many things politically but never dull. For the Labour Party, there was a move to the left among the rank and file after what was felt to have been lost years under Wilson and Callaghan from 1974 to defeat in 1979.

I remember being at meetings where you could divide the party members present into those that wanted to nationalise the top 25 monopolies and those that wanted to nationalise the top 250 monopolies (Tribune for the lower figure and Militant for the higher).

New Socialist was a monthly magazine in the 1980s and in this June 1982 issue you get a snapshot of what vexed the left. Norman Tebbit – the Chingford Skinhead (or Conservative MP for Chingford and government minister if you prefer) – dominated the front page with his bovver boot about to stamp on the trades unions.

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From 1979 to 1981, Jim Prior had been employment secretary. A more consensual Tory grandee, he fitted in with a view that the Conservatives should have some kind of modus vivendi with the trades unions. This view was chucked out of the window by the more suburban petit-bourgeois Tebbit who had no qualms about taking on organised labour.

Other articles in this issue of New Socialist included a debate between Frank Field on the right and Pat Wall on the Marxist left about who should own the soul of the Labour Party.  Both were MPs in the 80s with Wall being a Militant supporting MP in Bradford.

The militarisation of the police, the terrorising of women by the Yorkshire Ripper, Ronald Reagan and the “problem” of Europe were the subjects of other articles. The latter is interesting because the left hadn’t yet bought into the idea that Europe was a friend of the left. Europe – whether it was the Common Market, European Economic Community or European Union – was seen as a ‘capitalist club’ by many socialists in the early 1980s.

London reacts to Maggie in 1979


London and the south east had a swing to the Tories in 1979 that was 50% higher than the rest of the country. The GLC was already in Tory hands under the leadership of Horace Cutler. He was looking forward to a close working relationship with Thatcher around issues that would eventually move in his direction: the development of Canary Wharf, sale of council houses, the Jubilee line and a third airport. Cutler also thought his party would support an Olympics bid for 1988.

The GLC had traditionally been heavily involved in the provision of social housing but Cutler handed over stock to local boroughs and pushed for council house sales ahead of Thatcher coming to power and in the teeth of opposition from Labour, the left and housing groups.

Cutler believed London had given the Tories a huge endorsement and looked forward to a “happy time”. Unfortunately for him, Londoners turned on Cutler’s Conservatives in 1981 after two years of recession and the GLC ended up with Labour in control and Ken Livingstone.

Livingstone was able to link up with other Labour held metropolitan authorities like Merseyside and South Yorkshire. These sprawling urban councils had swung to Labour in 1979, defying the Thatcherite wave. The prime minister got her revenge in 1986 when she abolished all these authorities including the GLC.

Here is a punk rant against Cutler’s GLC from The Members

 

 

Jim Callaghan heckled during his 1979 election speech


A rather forgotten incident here when Pat Arrowsmith – veteran CND campaigner – heckled a beleaguered Jim Callaghan who had held on to his Cardiff seat in the 1979 general election but just lost the country to Thatcher and the Tories. She was shouting at him about Ireland and British intervention in the province. Callaghan probably had other things on his mind – like getting back to Downing Street, packing his belongings and going into opposition.

The fall of Jim Callaghan


This was the moment in 1979 when Prime Minister Jim Callaghan returned home from a political summit abroad to be pounced on by a gaggle of journalists asking him how he could have  left the country during a time of crisis. Callaghan was clearly irritated by the line of questioning and said that from outside the UK, the so-called ‘winter of discontent’ didn’t look so bad.

He also made a point that no spin doctor today would have ever allowed to happen – that he’d gone swimming while at the summit. An image of the PM in his Speedo trunks paddling in a tropical clime was not what the nation wanted. Callaghan never actually said the words ‘Crisis, what crisis?’ This was a cruel twist of the dagger from the hacks who scented blood.

Below that video of Callaghan – I’ve put another video. It’s an interview with Tony Benn at the time Jim Calaghan died giving his interpretation of events. Benn served under Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan and he questions the conventional wisdom that the trade unions brought Callaghan’s Labour government to its knees. He says the blame lay with the International Monetary Fund.

Short sharp shock – Thatcher’s regime for wayward youth


Not long after the 1979 election, Home Secretary William Whitelaw had announced he was going full steam ahead on a key manifesto promise – the Short Sharp Shock.

To a euphoric Tory party conference in October 1979, the urbane and aristocratic Whitelaw told delighted delegates that detention centres for teen lawbreakers would no longer be ‘holiday camps’.  This played on widely believed, media stories of young hooligans leading cosseted lives behind bars.  “Life will be conducted at a swift tempo,” he assured the party.

The belief was that a regime of early wake up calls, military drill and manual labour over a three month period would shock young offenders out of a life of crime.  To break even the most determined spirit, periods of recreation could be denied, silence was the general rule with only 30 minutes of chat between prisoners permitted each day.

The Short Sharp Shock regime kind of resembled the opening half of the movie Full Metal Jacket – a mindless ultra-disciplinarian series of routines that aimed to bury liberal attitudes to offender rehabilitation once and for forever.  This was going to be punishment pure and simple and the duly traumatised young criminals would keep their noses clean from then on.

Curiously, prisoners at one of the four Short Sharp Shock centres, Glenochil in Scotland, were referred to as ‘trainees’.   They were assessed in the mundane tasks they were ordered to perform, like cleaning the floors, and given colour coded tokens to mark out levels of achievement.

Under the terms of Whitelaw’s 1980 Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act, any young offender banged up for less than four months at Glenochil could expect a regimented hell.  Dormitories spotless by 6.45am while prison officers with peaked caps and pulled down shirtsleeves tipped over their bed mattress for any minor infraction and ordered it remade.

Marching was seen to be the idea therapy for these youngsters.  Marched to breakfast, marched to their cells, marched to the work areas and then marched to their tea break.  They were even forced to jog on the spot until told to stop.

Some of this simply echoed the kind of regimes that already existed in borstals but with greater intensity and over a shorter time period.  But it also signaled a view in government circles that a crackdown was needed on Britain’s wayward youth, a reversal of the permissive society kicked off in the 1960s and perceived to have set in train some kind of moral decline.

But it wasn’t morals that these young primarily lacked.  It was jobs in the real world.  Most of those sent to the designated Short Sharp Shock centres had committed acts of theft or stolen vehicles and something like 90%, according to the Sunday Times, had no work at the time of offending.

In an unfortunate twist for the government, these kids with little by way of a future often found the regime a relief from the drudgery outside.   Effectively, it took their minds off how dreadful things had become in their shattered communities.

As one youth mused.

“I can’t say whether I’ll go out and pinch again or not, but I can tell you that drilling hasn’t made any difference.  It makes me better, I think.  I enjoy it, it passes the time more quickly and it makes us fit.  Next time, we’ll just run faster from the coppers won’t we?”