The Liberals in the 1979 election – sailing to disaster


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 philosophers like Kropotkin. It smacked of a desperate bid for intellectual credibility.

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 Liberal SDP Alliance – by allying with right of centre Labour politicians who had deserted their party to form the Social Democrats. This eventually evolved into the Lib Dems.

IMG_5966

 

Scandal over an alleged gay relationship destroys a political career


Thorpe
Jeremy Thorpe

Jeremy Thorpe was the leader of the Liberal Party from 1967 to 1976.  He stepped down after an extraordinary scandal that gripped Britain at the time over allegations he had a gay relationship with a man called Norman Scott – and was then involved in a conspiracy to have Scott murdered.

The allegations had seeped out during the trial of Andrew Newton, a man who’d driven Scott out on to Exmoor and shot his dog – Rinka – a Great Dane. He then tried to shoot Scott but the gun was said to have jammed.

Scott used his appearance in court to reveal his relationship with Thorpe – claiming it happened in the early 1960s when homosexuality was still illegal.

That was bad enough in the homophobic 1970s but worse came when Newton emerged from prison in 1977 to claim he had been hired to kill Scott.

There was then the hideous spectacle for the Liberal Party of its leader and deputy Treasurer David Holmes being put on trial with two others – just weeks before the general election of 1979. Thorpe had already stepped down as leader before Newton’s release – replaced by David Steel.

The electors of Devon North didn’t return Thorpe to parliament and as you can see in the video below, he cuts a miserable figure behind the victorious Tory. It’s not inconceivable that he might have lost in the Thatcherite tide but the trial certainly didn’t help.

A week after losing his seat, Thorpe and the others were put on trial for attempted murder and conspiracy to murder. A former Liberal MP testified against Thorpe claiming Scott had been a target. But on the 22nd June, 1979 – the ex-leader and the rest were acquitted.

The 1979 General Election – three rivals in the election of the century


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.

Steel (left), Thatcher (centre) and Callaghan (right)

80s bands that toyed with Nazi-era references – but weren’t Nazis


hitler youth
Hitler Youth – not New Romantics

Punk and its aftermath was all about transgression – embracing things that shocked or violated normal codes of behaviour.

And just three to four decades after World War II, you could always rely on employing Nazi references to shock and disgust public opinion.

Whether it was Sid Vicious wandering around off his head with a Nazi emblem or bands adopting names that related to the Third Reich – anything to do with Hitler still touched a very raw nerve.

There was also an embarrassed fascination for Nazi style and art. Far from being seen as vulgar, philistine and oppressive – the fascist aesthetic was viewed as stirring and provocative by people whose political views might actually be quite liberal or left-wing.

So, you had the band Joy Division – naming itself after the sex slavery wing of Hitlerite concentration camps. Heavy metal bands were never shy about using the Iron Cross or stylised eagles. Artists might casually praise the buildings or films of that era. And David Bowie’s wave to fans was characterised by some as a fascist salute – vehemently denied by the man himself.

When one New Romantic band decided to call itself Spandau Ballet, that sent a journalist at the Record Mirror into a spin:

Unfortunately, the element of this project which I find disturbing, threatening and worthy of debate lies not in the music itself, but in the premise upon which our young warriors have erected their grandiose musical/lyrical edifice.

The journo went on to note that the album was white-on-white with a muscular naked form.  And the scribbler was rattled by a quote inside the record sleeve – “…the soaring joy of immaculate rhythms, the sublime glow of music for heroes…stirring vision….journeys to glory…”

The Record Mirror fumed that this linked Spandau Ballet to an ‘Aryan Youth ideal’ reminiscent of the Hitler Youth.  The review then went on to make it clear there was no linkage to far right groups being suggested just a deep sense of unease.

The journalist suggested to readers that they play ‘Muscle Bound’ back to back with ‘Tomorrow Belongs to Me’ from the movie Cabaret and observe how the ‘mood’ is the same.

“Tread very carefully for all our sakes,” the magazine warned the band.