Martin Pugh

Martin Pugh teaches history at the university of Newcastle upon Tyne. His publications include Electoral Reform in War and Peace 1906-18 and The Making of Modern British Politics 1867-1939.

Grantham Factor

Martin Pugh, 2 March 1989

In a few short months Margaret Thatcher will chalk up her first decade as prime minister. The celebrations to which this occasion will give rise in the mass media are certain to focus attention once again upon the phenomenon of ‘Thatcherism’ and its supposed origins in the Prime Minister’s own childhood experience of life above the grocer’s shop in Grantham. Historians, biographers, pundits and journalists flutter helplessly around ‘roots’ like the proverbial moths around the candle’s flame. For some statesmen roots provide a comfort and a reassurance – Baldwin’s Worcestershire and Wilson’s Huddersfield come to mind. Some deliberately distance themselves as Lloyd George did from Criccieth, while others consciously adopt a home in the manner of Harold Macmillan with Stockton-on-Tees. Yet others have behaved like President Bush, grabbing home-towns by the bushel in a slightly frenzied search for identity. But no one, surely, has made his or her roots work as hard for them as Mrs Thatcher has with Grantham.’

Draining the Think Tank

Martin Pugh, 24 November 1988

‘It’s a strange thing,’ said Harold Macmillan after becoming Prime Minister, ‘that I have now got the biggest job I ever had, and less help in doing it than I have ever known.’ He referred, of course, to the absence of any significant department for the Prime Minister – the ‘hole in the centre of the system’, as Lord Hunt put it. That most premiers have managed to live with this situation is testament to the strength of the amateur tradition in British politics. Even Macmillan, for all his perception of the problem, still preferred to govern by means of haphazard and short-term expedients, to react to events rather than to anticipate. Yet the idea of a real Prime Minister’s Office had assumed concrete form some forty years earlier in Lloyd George’s so-called Personal Secretariat; and although some of the apparatus associated with his wartime system has survived, notably the Cabinet Secretariat, successive premiers since then have seldom felt the same need for expertise on hand in Downing Street which Lloyd George attempted to satisfy. It was not until after the 1970 Election, when Edward Heath assumed the premiership, that the Personal Secretariat returned to life in the form of the Central Policy Review Staff, popularly known as the Think Tank. What seems surprising is that Heath’s Think Tank, with a basic staff of only twenty, was not much larger than Lloyd George’s.’

One of the few growth areas in Britain today is the Thatcher industry. Battalions of journalists, political scientists and ‘contemporary historians’ are busily exploiting the phenomenon of ‘Thatcherism’ by analysing its origins, meaning and impact. No doubt, from the perspective of the British political élite, cocooned in the hothouse atmosphere of Whitehall-Westminster, it appears a very real thing. But peer below the froth into the minds of ordinary people, and the Thatcher revolution – even after eight and a half years of upheaval – is remarkably difficult to detect. This is the most striking message which emerges from the 1987 Report on British Social Attitudes, issued by Social and Community Planning, an independent institute founded in 1969. One of the great merits of the SCPR survey is that it poses many of the same questions to its sample from one year to the next: as a result, it is able to identify real, if gradual, shifts in popular attitudes, as opposed to the short-term vacillations which are the stuff of most opinion polling and social science.’

But for Britain’s antediluvian electoral system the House of Commons would now comprise around 160 Alliance, 180 Labour and 280 Conservative MPs – and the new books by David Butler and Vernon Bogdanor would have vanished beneath a stampede of eager buyers. As things are, though the distorted election results have robbed them of some of their topicality, they will be very widely and minutely studied by politicians, students of politics and Her Majesty the Queen – or at least by her advisers. All four authors would agree that British politics have entered a new phase which is not simply an ephemeral spasm of protest, and which makes the future uncertain and fascinating; Särlvik and Crewe, as befits men who are operating at the treacherous coalface of voting patterns, show more caution, it is true, but even they see a significant long-term shift among the electorate in the elections of 1970, 1974 and 1979, which 1983 has surely extended still further.–

Long March

Martin Pugh, 2 June 1983

The trouble with timely books is that time is apt to run out rather suddenly for them. No doubt when the 20 members of Labour’s Shadow Cabinet planned the essays in Renewal they expected them to thicken the political debate during the six to nine months run-up to a general election. As it is, they have been overtaken by events: shortly we shall have the more clipped and precise promises of the real Manifesto instead of the discursive and sometimes cloudy compositions presented here. ‘Timely and provocative’ is the publisher’s claim for this volume. Provocative? Not at all – nor should one expect it to be, for elections in Britain are invariably won by those who manage to be reassuring to the electorate. Even the notable left-wing victories of 1906, 1929, 1945, 1966 and 1974 all owed something to the capacity of the radical party of the time to allay the fears of voters alarmed by the Right. Now Mrs Thatcher is as reassuring as a lively ferret in a warren full of rabbits, but Labour’s escape route attracts little traffic. Many of the contributors seem primarily to be reassuring themselves, for they look back to 1945-51 as if hoping to recapture glad confident morning again. As always, they find no inspiration in Clement Attlee. He is very much Labour’s Lord Salisbury – long-lasting and successful, but an end rather than a beginning. Instead it is Nye Bevan whose words our authors like to quote.–

A Babylonian Touch: Weimar in Britain

Susan Pedersen, 6 November 2008

The Left Book Club edition of The Road to Wigan Pier, published in 1937 with a print run of more than forty thousand, had an inset of a dozen or so grainy photographs. They offered shocking...

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It is 26 years since Oswald Mosley breathed his last at the Temple de la Gloire, the athletic frame which he had once so proudly flexed now sadly bloated, his piercing eyes shrunk to peepholes,...

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First past the post

Peter Clarke, 17 February 1983

It is notorious that all societies manifest some sense of their history as part of their own collective self-consciousness. The past is drawn upon selectively, compounding nationhood, cultural...

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