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.
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?”
Quite a few left wing firebrands from the 1970s and 1980s have now been forgotten. Who can remember Red Robbo, Red Ted and, pictured below, Red Ron? Yes, such a person existed.
Red Ron was Ron Brown, MP for Leith. He got quite a reputation for being suspended repeatedly from the House of Commons, particularly on one occasion where he chucked the mace to the ground during a debate on the Poll Tax in 1988.
In 1982, Thatcher decided to pay a trip to Scotland where, to be honest, she wasn’t hugely popular. Brown appeared before her to deliver a socialist sermon and as you can see in his pose, he looks rather like a modern John Knox. Despite being an MP, he was still bundled to the ground by police officers.
In 1981, the Jobs Express chugged across Britain crammed with jobless youngsters. Through November it went from Newcastle up into Scotland and then down south through the Midlands to Bristol and finally arriving in London. Some newspapers sneered at the political train claiming it was a socialist deception. But the labour movement embraced the Jobs Express and one private sector company – Swan National Car Rental – claimed to have been so ‘inspired’ by the train that it created 25 jobs on the spot. I reproduce the letter they issued at the time below.