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.
We all know that Thatcher defeated the miners in 1985 because Meryl Streep told us so. But Maggie’s fight with the National Union of Mineworkers didn’t go without some major hiccups along the way.
When the Tories came to power in 1979, they were determined on revenge for the perceived role the miners had in bringing down the 1970-1974 Ted Heath Conservative government.
The NUM was seen as the militant vanguard of the labour movement and if it could be cowed, then it would be a lot easier to push through the Thatcher agenda.
The government was determined to reduce subsidies to the nationalised industries, which in those days covered car making, steel, transport, gas, electricity and coal mining – amongst other things. So in 1980, legislation allowed Thatcher to remove operating subsidies from the coal industry. By 1981, the Coal Board was begging for more cash. The response was to announce the closure of 23 pits.
The NUM was led by Joe Gormley, who had been leader of the union in the Ted Heath years, and he demanded a reduction in coal imports and the restitution of subsidies to the industry. In a rare climbdown, Thatcher gave in. This was hailed as her first big U-turn since coming to power. So why did she do it?
You can rest assured it had nothing to do with the persuasiveness of Gormley’s arguments. What has since emerged was the existence of a plan drafted by right wing Conservative MP Nicholas Ridley – called the Ridley Plan.
Drafted after the 1974 miners strike, he secretly urged Tories to prepare with almost military precision for a titanic battle with the NUM. Coal stocks would have to be upped, imports of coal increased, money cut off for strikers, etc.
The reality in 1981 was that these preparations were not nailed down. Thatcher needed more time to prepare. And by 1984 – when she announced 20 pit closures – she was ready for the year long battle that ensued.
1979 was a pivotal year for world politics – only rivalled by 2016 with the election of Donald Trump as US president. Back in 79, Margaret Thatcher swept to power in the UK followed by Ronald Reagan in the United States. It heralded an era of free market economics and initially a drift to socially conservative attitudes – especially towards ethnic minorities and LGBT people.
The election marked the end of a post-war era of political and economic consensus. Since 1945, both main parties had accepted a mixed economy – part state and part privately owned. Industry was managed in a tripartite arrangement between bosses, unions and government with formalised structures for regular talks.
State owned bodies had run the utilities and key industries with commissions regulating pay and prices. Government departments determined policy and practice in large swathes of the economy because Whitehall owned the steel, gas, mining and other sectors.
All of this came to an end in 1979. Thatcher and her free market coterie took on organised labour but also elements in her own party who preferred a “One Nation” vision of society to her more aggressively individualist vision. On the left, there was a parallel movement of Marxists and socialists who also rejected the post-war consensus but wanted a very different kind of society with workers’ control and the end of capitalism.
The 1979 election saw three main protagonists duke it out for the keys to Number Ten. Thatcher was by far the most energetic and with everything to win. Labour leader Jim Callaghan was more popular as a person but had dithered over calling an election for a year in which the unions had staged major industrial action – the so-called Winter of Discontent – eroding Labour’s standing in the polls. By the election, he came across as a man weary of high office.
In the middle was David Steel, the Liberal leader, who had been propping up Labour in the so-called Lib-Lab pact – as Labour lost its majority during its 1974-79 term in office. This pact would damage the Liberals, many of whose supporters switched to the Tories. In fact, Labour’s vote didn’t slump so much as the Liberals collapsed into Thatcher’s arms.