- The Writing on the wall: Britain in the Seventies by Phillip Whitehead
Joseph, 438 pp, £14.95, November 1985, ISBN 0 7181 2471 5
Some decades coincide with historical periods, give or take a year or two. The Twenties were self-contained as the era between the Great War and the world slump, and the Thirties a loaded pause between one catastrophe and the next. But the Seventies had no separate identity. Recognising this, Phillip Whitehead begins his book – written to accompany the Channel 4 series of the same name – with the euphoria of Harold Wilson’s victory in 1964. He ends in 1981 with the ‘drying-out of the wets’ by Mrs Thatcher in her autumn reshuffle. The underlying theme, if only a whisper in the reader’s ear, is plain enough: the erosion of the post-war state, the collapse of consensus politics, the descent of Labour into the abyss. Or to sum it all up – decline and fall.
As we look back over the process, two distinct phases can be distinguished. In the first ten years optimism triumphed over experience. The Labour ministers of 1964 assumed that enlightened men and women, acting through the state, could solve economic and social problems. Poverty could be abolished, inequalities reduced and industry modernised. Six years of disappointment followed, but the faith held good. In 1970 it was replenished from an unusual source when Heath succeeded Wilson. Though caricatured at first as a reactionary (‘Selsdon Man’), Heath was a more principled social democrat than his predecessor. Wilson saw the expediency of the Common Market, but his mentality was that of a Little Englander. Heath was a good European and believed in Western Europe as a progressive force in world affairs. Similarly, Wilson treated the trade unions as pawns in the political game. Heath, after a false start, treated them as an estate of the realm. Under Heath, the politics of optimism were reborn. Fuelled by economic growth and membership of the Common Market, Britain was destined to become a more progressive and classless society, investing more in the arts, education and social services. Such was the vision of a Conservative prime minister in those far-off days. Britain’s problems, Heath declared in the autumn of 1973, were the problems of success.
The collapse of optimism, when it came, was remarkably sudden. One moment the prospect was fair, with the harmonies of the Beatles still lingering in the background, and the Times extolling the principles of Keynesian demand management. The next, all was forbidding and the air was filled with punk rock and leading articles on monetarism. The second phase had begun.
Inflation and industrial unrest were the agents of change. The Yom Kippur War quadrupled the price of oil and the energy crisis played into the hands of the miners. Heath took them on in the General Election of March 1974 and lost. Labour rejoiced, but prematurely: in retrospect, the fall of Heath should be ringed as a black day in the calendar. In 1975 he was replaced as leader of the Tory Party by Mrs Thatcher, a far more deadly enemy of the Left. Meanwhile, Labour Cabinets were lashed to the wheel with nowhere to go except straight into the eye of the storm. The tasks of deflating the economy, curbing the social services, and controlling the trade unions, fell to Wilson and Callaghan. Anthony Crosland, the leading theorist of social democracy, served notice of a new order: ‘The party’s over.’
The headlines since then have been a record of almost unrelieved bad news for Labour. The destruction by Harold Wilson of Tony Benn’s industrial strategy in 1975, the surrender of Callaghan to the IMF in 1976, and the creation of the Lib-Lab pact in 1977, divided and demoralised the Party. The one tangible achievement of the last Labour government, the reduction of inflation, was gained at the price of an incomes policy that eventually drove the low-paid into revolt. The last days of James Callaghan, with grave-diggers on strike and NUPE pulling the plug on hospital patients, were piteous and shameful and the ‘winter of discontent’ ensured the victory of Mrs Thatcher.
Though Labour were out, the future was still uncertain. Few realised in the summer of 1979 that a change of government heralded the demolition of the post-war Establishment and a sharp swing from consensus to conflict. The Conservatives were divided. The Wets intended to clean up social-democratic politics and reintroduce a Tory version of consensus. They rejected free market economics as a heresy which, if allowed to flourish, would wreck the Party. Had they prevailed, the Conservatives would have committed themselves to prevent mass unemployment and, perhaps, have perished in the attempt. The radical Right, on the other hand, believed that social democracy was intellectually bankrupt and the system a proven failure, ripe for attack and destruction. Social conscience was out of date and it was time to mobilise social prejudice, rubbishing civil servants, teachers, clergymen, social workers and ‘the chattering classes’. As for unemployment, the blame could be transferred to the unions or even to the unemployed themselves.
In the short run, Mrs Thatcher and the radical Right won the day. First they seized control of the Cabinet, in the autumn of 1981; and then, in the spring of 1982, conquered the opinion polls as the Argentines ran up the white flag at Port Stanley. So the Thatcherite counter-revolution was launched and the cycle of change had come full circle.
It is never too soon to explore the recent past. Findings are bound to be provisional, distorted by current perspectives and hampered by lack of evidence. But as we stumble into the future a provisional map is better than none at all. Scholarly detachment may be something to aim for in fifty years’ time, but engagement is what we need now. The radical Right has a clear vision of recent events. So have Tony Benn and Militant and the other factions of the Left. Ideological history is riding high and all these interpretations serve as a guide to action. But what of the middling ranks from the Tory Wets to the Kinnock Left? Where are their diagnoses and prescriptions?
Where indeed? The Tories and the Alliance have an alibi of sorts and can explain much away as the fault of a Labour Party overloaded with trade-union influence and socialist doctrine. It may seem puzzling that prominent members of the SDP were content to remain in the Party, in spite of the terrible flaws of which they now complain, on the long march from 1964 to 1979. But at least they have a tale to tell. The problem of coming to terms with the past is far more acute for members of the Labour Party.
Some argue that the root of the trouble was right-wing drift. Wilson, it is said, ought to have dissociated himself from L.B.J. and the Vietnam War. Callaghan ought never to have insisted on an incomes policy that cut the living standards of the low-paid. Manifesto commitments ought to have been carried out, as in 1945. The party faithful may comfort themselves with this kind of talk, but like all narrowly partisan discussion it is terribly blinkered. Something more systematic was amiss with British politics, and especially with Labour, between 1964 and 1979.
As a member of the Labour Party and a former Labour MP, Phillip Whitehead might be expected to have strong opinions on the period. But his book, packed as it is with information, reflects the television series in avoiding an explicit thesis or point of view. The television concept of balance, with equal space for the contributions of Left, Right and Centre, is transferred to the printed page. Judgments cancel one another out and the appearance of neutrality is strengthened by a reliance upon narrative. Whitehead broadens the book with lively and informative comment on social and economic issues. Housing, the inner city, race relations, productivity, inflation, the redistribution of wealth, Private Eye and Spare Rib all find a place. But how do they add up?
Between 1964 and 1979 no government succeeded in carrying out its programme. The conventional explanation is that economic management was at fault. If Wilson had devalued in 1964, the cuts introduced in 1966 could have been avoided. If Heath had kept his nerve in 1972, inflation and the pay explosion would have been kept in check, and so on. With more enlightened economic management, economic growth would have followed, and with it a broad political consensus. But failure on the economic front generated social protest, industrial unrest, and the revival of ideology.
As Samuel Beer demonstrated in his book Britain against Itself, this simple theory of cause and effect is mechanical and misleading. In the late Sixties Britain was swept by a revolt against deference. The revolt took many contrasting and conflicting forms, but the common source was the liberation of populist values from the straitjacket of conformity. Counter-cultures flowered: Scottish, Welsh and Irish nationalism, the National Front, the New Left, Gay Liberation, the women’s movement. Parliamentary politics were neglected in favour of ‘grass-roots protest’ by impatient and impassioned pressure groups. A rebellion of the rank and file ran through the trade unions and undermined the authority of the union leaders.
The populist revolt was not a protest against economic frustration, but a sign of economic growth and rising expectations. Once a prison, the economy seemed to have become a playpen where dreams came true in the shape of ever more desirable toys and treats. But the explosion of expectations overburdened the economy and the political system. Inflation was the measure of the gap between demands and resources. Politicians promised jobs, benefits and services they could not deliver. The contradiction was most acute in the Labour Party, where the demands of party activists bore little relation to the declining economy outside the conference hall, and Cabinets were left trying to square the circle. It has taken another great slump, electoral disaster, the teachings of Eric Hobsbawm, and the defeat of the NUM, to awaken Labour activists to the new economic realities.
While sensitive to the underlying problems of the Seventies, Whitehead does not argue them through. The narrative of yesterday’s headlines carries him along, and when he does pause for reflection, he prefers to avoid explicit conclusions. In a chapter on the debate over moral and educational standards, he writes as follows:
The sea change in British politics in the Seventies can only be understood by analysing how the debate about standards came to occupy the overground of political argument. What were thought in the Sixties to be shrill protests by threatened vested interests came together in a grumbling consonance that the line must be drawn somewhere. Permissiveness, collectivism and social reform, it was thought, had produced a crisis of authority. Governments were at the best weak, at the worst corrupt. Subversives lurked everywhere. The terrorist was at the gate.
As an insight into a state of mind, this is very helpful. But what is the author’s own view? Was there a crisis of authority or not? And if so, had permissiveness, collectivism or social reform brought it about? Were governments weak or corrupt? The last two sentences, implying a degree of paranoia on the part of moral conservatives, suggest they were misreading the situation. But there was a romantic hedonism abroad in society, especially among the younger generation. There were logical connections between the pressures for sexual freedom, the revolution in material expectations, the expansion of higher education, and the demand for more social benefits from the state. People had never had it so good, and, satirists added, never had it so often. Many a kindly, civilised liberal celebrated the advance of toleration and the idealism of young people. But the swinging Sixties had a seamy underside of selfish irresponsibility. Everyone was to do their own thing, but the thing might be somebody else. The football hooligans of today descend from the youth culture of the late Sixties. More widely, the Sixties witnessed a fragmentation of society, with every trade union and pressure group pressing its own claims as though by divine right.
If the politics of social democracy are ever to be restored, we shall need to be quite clear what was wrong with the old model. The Labour Party, under the influence of Tony Benn, succumbed after 1970 to a romantic, illusory socialism. Every strike and every claim on the state was held to be justified as an instalment in the class struggle. If dockers marched in support of Enoch Powell, they were held to be suffering from false consciousness. But if they went on strike they were heroes of labour. The fact that flying pickets or the scramble for benefits had little or nothing to do with a passion for social justice was seldom appreciated by ideologues, though it was perfectly obvious to the general public.
At the zenith of the inflationary wage spiral in 1975 Paul Johnson observed:
Free collective bargaining necessarily excludes huge sections of society. They are not organised. They cannot be organised. Rapid inflation inflicts the greatest possible suffering on the very poor, the old, the very young, the sick, the helpless, the physically and mentally handicapped, all the outcasts and misfits and casualties of society.
There was truth in this, and the Tories took advantage, presenting themselves as the trade union of the left-out millions. The subsequent defection of Paul Johnson to the Thatcherite camp ought not to be dismissed as the tale of a lone crackpot. He was one of many converts. Labour was forfeiting the ethical appeal of Lansbury, Cripps and Attlee, and leaving the door open for an alternative morality of reaction. Whitehead quotes the judgment of Stuart Hall: ‘Margaret Thatcher speaks quite authentically for those people who felt they were left behind by permissiveness, threatened by affluence, challenged by the sexual revolution, who never wanted a libertarian society, who believe in greater authority, in the family, in paternal authority.’
Thatcherism has flourished, not because of a media conspiracy or because of the inherent wickedness of sections of the population, but because the Thatcherites directly addressed the problems of an overloaded state, a disintegrating political economy, and a society in a moral vacuum. Many people on the left have still to grasp that although the solutions advanced by the radical Right are distorted by repugnant social prejudices, the problems of which they speak are genuine. Popular anxieties have been exaggerated and exploited by the tabloid press with the aim of creating a moral panic, but they have not been fabricated out of thin air. The free market economy has no moral validity and ought to be an obvious target for attack. Yet the Thatcherites have managed to split the social from the economic issues and link the defence of law and order to the cause of cowboy capitalism. Never was there such blatant humbug, but even now, under a leader of patent sincerity and compassion, the Labour Party lacks credibility as a moral force and the gap has to be filled by the Church of England – the SDP at prayer.
There is a lesson here for Neil Kinnock. Mrs Thatcher has proved that traditional moral values are alive and kicking, but hers are very much the values of the lower middle class – hostile to organised labour, suspicious of the highly educated, deferential to authority, prone to sexual puritanism. Neil Kinnock should consciously seek to revive the traditional values, by no means mythical, of working-class community: solidarity, discipline, neighbourhood, patriotism, democratic socialism. Sociologists may contend that such values are now irrelevant, since the conditions which produced them have passed away. But memories and images of the past are potent in Britain and many people over the age of forty regret the passing of a more neighbourly society. There is a consciousness here to be tapped and harnessed to contemporary purposes. Nostalgia need not be a form of escape.
With greater moral authority, a Labour government could adopt a more principled realism with the aim of carrying out a carefully tailored programme of specific reforms. Until such time as capitalism disappoints the broad mass of the population whom it provides with jobs and a rising standard of living, it is here to stay and the task of socialism is to reform the social services, restore the inner cities, create jobs in the depressed areas, and prevent the trade unions from clawing back the necessary resources in inflationary wage settlements. That will be more than enough to be going on with.
These are some of the issues Phillip White-head might have tackled in his book and their absence is a disappointment. But it would be wrong to end on a grudging note where pleasure and profit are still to be had. The story of Cabinet and Parliamentary politics, as governments groped from crisis to crisis, is very well done. The politicians and other top people interviewed for the television series have many double-edged comments to offer on colleagues and rivals. Here is Enoch Powell on his dismissal from the Shadow Cabinet by Heath, after the notorious ‘river of blood’ speech in 1969: ‘It didn’t chime with the relationship which Ted Heath thought necessary for electoral success to maintain with what he called “the heavies”, the respectable news-papers, or respectable opinion or liberal opinion in the country. So the lesser evil was to dispose of the Member of Parliament who had so accurately hit off the mood of the country, as the unprecedented exhibition of public opinion which followed proved.’ For contrast, here is Tony Benn recalling his opposition, in the Callaghan Cabinet, to the proposed terms of the IMF loan:
They said to me: ‘You see, your plan, Tony, will mean a siege economy.’ And I said: ‘We haven’t an alternative to a siege economy. The difference between my siege economy and yours is that in my siege economy we’ll have our allies with us, against the bankers. In your siege economy we’ll have the bankers with us and our supporters outside.’
Powell and Benn were both generally regarded, by respectable opinion, as loonies. Yet no two politicians did more to break up the consensus of the Sixties and reshape their parties as conflicting ideological forces. In politics it seldom pays to take the lead too soon, however. Powell created the opportunity for Thatcher, but his own career has petered out in the wilderness of Ulster. Benn’s campaign to reform the Labour Party led to the election of Neil Kinnock, but he himself has languished, half-forgotten, on the backbenches. Between them, however, Benn and Powell broke the monopoly of liberal opinion and channelled the populist revolt into the party system. In the long run the great gain from the turmoil of the Sixties and Seventies is that we are a more democratic society with more initiative from below. The consequences can be very disturbing when illiberal opinions float to the surface. But Lord Randolph Churchill gave the right advice a century ago: ‘Trust the People.’