We’ve got used to today’s crisis in the Middle East – the Syrian horror, Daesh, Al Qaeda and the drift away from democracy in Turkey. Well, in the early 80s it was all about the recent revolution in Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Both questions divided the left. The events of those times have rumbled through to our own time.
Iran had overthrown the Shah, a royal dictator, in 1979. The revolution had started as an urban workers movement but was hijacked by an exiled theocrat called Ayatollah Khomeini. He returned from Paris to Teheran and imposed an Islamic state to the horror of secularists and left wingers in Iran. The country has been ruled by this theocracy ever since.
In the early 80s, the left highlighted the crushing of workers’ rights by the mullahs and the use of capital punishment. Nothing much changes eh?
In 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.
Within 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.
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.
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.
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 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
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.
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.