If there is one political history book you read this year, Dominic Sandbrook’s “Seasons in the Sun: The battle for Britain 1974-1979″ is the one. Sandbrook tells the story (from a centre-right perspective) of Britain culturally, politically and economically from Harold Wilson’s return to power in early 1974 to Mrs Thatcher’s election in 1979.
What makes the book so good are the wonderfully human nuggets that communicate the crisis facing Britain at the time. Whether it is some of Wilson’s advisors seemingly seriously considering murdering one of their number, to the exasperation of Tony Benn’s cabinet colleagues at his refusal to accept economic reality, to retired generals and media barons actively considering the military overthrow of the democratically elected government.
But what really fascinates are the facts that contradict the myths of the era, such as the reality that private school numbers actually grew under Labour’s hamfisted efforts to make education more equal.
Or that one education minister in particular closed more semi-private grammar schools than any other in history: Margaret Thatcher.
Or what about the fact that by the end, with inflation threatening to soar into the late 20s, it was the Labour government, at the behest of (amazingly) trades union leaders, which finally got a grip on public spending.
From an Irish perspective, there’s plenty here too. There’s the Ulster Worker’s Council strike, where a fascist mob basically staged a coup in Northern Ireland, but also a glimpse of what might be: In Tony Benn’s ridiculous pouring of public money into loss-making worker’s collectives making products that no one wants to buy, we see what life under Richard Boyd Barrett could be like.
I listened to it as an audiobook, which I seriously recommend as David Thorpe, the actor reading it, does a very credible impression of nearly all the key players of the time. A super, informative, entertaining book.
Watching the strong performance of UKIP in the English county council elections, I couldn’t help thinking how an English version of Fianna Fáil would do.
I suspect quite well, especially when one considers that one of the more curious aspects of modern British politics is the breakdown in traditional concepts of left and right along the political spectrum.
In particular, the assumption that left voters go to the centre before the right, or vice versa, just isn’t true. A more accurate reality is that modern British voters are prone to cherry picking from various points along the political spectrum, being left wing on health care and spending, but right wing on immigration and law and order. Tony Blair (a Fianna Failer if there ever was one) recognised this, and translated it into three successive election victories. Nigel Farage does too, judging by UKIP’s cross party appeal.
But what really would work for an English FF would be its classlessness, the fact that both entrepreneurs and social welfare recipients would feel perfectly comfortable lobbying the party, and not feel that the party owed a pre-loyalty to a different section of society. Fianna Fail’s centrist “whatever works” approach is a very attractive proposition for the modern non-tribal consumer-voter, provided it is accompanied by competence and not marred by self-obsessed corruption dressed up as party loyalty, something which Fianna Fáil suffered from in Ireland.
Perhaps Fianna Fáil should consider opening a UK franchise. After all, isn’t that effectively what it is in Ireland?
There’s a lot of talk recently in Tory backbench circles about joint Tory-UKIP candidates. If I were Nigel Farage, I’d be treading very carefully at this moment, and pondering what it is that has elevated UKIP to its current handsome showing in the polls. Looking at the polls, and where UKIP voters are coming from, there is a Tory bent, but that’s not all. There’s a reasonable suggestion that some disgruntled Old Labour voters are also coming onboard, and also that section of voters that just hate the political establishment. As both the Lib Dems in the UK and Green Party in Ireland discovered, a party can shed votes as quick as it secured them if it gets too close to one of those political establishment pillars. Be warned, Nige.
This week’s breakthrough for UKIP should be welcomed by anybody who supports a healthy, vibrant democracy. The fact that a country as eurosceptic as Britain does not have a major national “out” party in parliament is an outrage, and if anything underlines the failings of the British political system.
One of the spin-offs for political reformers in Britain (even pro-Europeans) must be that the potential rise of a viable fourth party will show just how ridiculously unsuitable First Past The Post is as an electoral system in a modern multi-choice age. It’s not too fantastic to suggest that a strong performance by UKIP in a general election could result in the Tories winning the most votes but not the most seats. Could it make the Tories wake up (as their Australian counterparts did) to the fact that FPTP may not be the great voting system they think it is?
The other point which should be made is a warning about assumptions by the Tories that UKIP is somehow their errant gene pool, who can be coaxed back into the Tory fold. This may no longer be the case, because UKIP voters would seem to be exercised by issues wider than just the EU, including immigration and cuts to public services. Working class UKIP voters, for example, seem to believe that they are being undercut by workers from central Europe. Given that the Tories are not opposed to free movement within the EU, the only solution to that is tougher enforcement of employment regulations, something which the Tories would presumably be against. As well as that, talk of deals with the Tories is becoming much less attractive to UKIP as it develops a respectable tally in opinion polls as the “F**k you all” two fingered option to the political establishment.
Finally, UKIP’s rise should be welcomed because it has underlined the media obsessed paralysis of the three main UKIP parties. Every time Nigel Farage says something mildly off the political track, he gets accused of being a bigot or a racist, and guess what: it doesn’t hurt him politically at all, because he speaks in the language that non-political man down the pub speaks, and when you call him a bigot you’re calling Pub Man a bigot too, and he knows he’s not. Farage is by far the most entertaining player on the political stage since Boris, primarily because he doesn’t cage everything in get out clauses and political speak. In short, he sounds authentic, and politics could do with a bit more of that.
Mrs Thatcher, not one for sleeping much to begin with, had nevertheless been awoken with the news. HMS Invincible had been hit by at least three exocet missiles, and was sinking. Casualties were lighter than expected, but the captain had given the abandon ship order. The prime minister, after ensuring that all possible aid was given to the escaping survivors, addressed the question her assembled military and political staff waited for. Could they still retake the islands? Admiral Woodward was blunt. Air cover was vital, and with Invincible lost, HMS Hermes was now the sole provider of air cover, and the Argentinians knew it too. The entire enemy air force, he said, would be tasked with sinking the Hermes. That was easier said than done, given the range problems the Argentine Air Force had, having to fly from the mainland, but it meant that the closer the Hermes was to the Falklands themselves, to provide air support for ground forces, the greater the risk was that it could be hit.
Woodward also pointed out the effect the sinking of the Invincible would have on the morale of both sides, and that it would play a significant role. He was right. The following morning, despite D Notices being issued to all British newspapers, the Sun and the Mirror both ran with screen grabs from an American TV crew in a chartered plane who had footage of the ship’s last moments before it slipped beneath. The Sun declared “You Argy Bastards!” whilst the Mirror went with the more restrained “Revenge now!” The country swung solidly behind the prime minister, but then, it did not know what she knew. She had a choice. Risk the Hermes in close support, the loss of which would mean the end of the campaign, or risk soldiers lives without air support. Her political advisers were clear. Parliament would not wear the loss of the Hermes, and she would be gone by the end of the day. They advocated a landing without full air support.
The military objected strongly, with the head of the army threatening to resign in a red-faced heated exchange with a political advisor where he refused to put British soldiers into unnecessary danger to save a politician’s blushes. Mrs Thatcher, in a moment of honour that even her most ardent opponents recognised as an act of nobility, assured the general that she would never give such an order. She then instructed her foreign secretary to contact the Americans to act as go-betweens.
US Secretary of State Alexander Haig quickly negotiated a ceasefire, and within three weeks US helicopters were landing in the Falklands to evacuate any Falkland Islanders who wished to be evacuated from the conflict zone. The talks in Washington quickly settled on the concept of Britain conceeding shared sovereignty of the islands in return for an Argentine withdrawal. When Mrs Thatcher visited the White House to make it clear to President Reagan that such an option was not acceptable, the president diplomatically informed her that she had no choice. Argentina was the force on the ground and she was negotiating from a position of weakness. She then requested US military assistance to change that fact. When President Reagan refused, she departed, and never spoke to him again for the rest of his life.
With the task force limping back to Portsmouth, the polls, which previous to the invasion had the newly formed centrist Social Democratic Party with over 50%, and the Tories in third place, opened up even wider. The prime minister delayed the general election until May 1984, but the desperate economic news and the humiliation of the Falklands led to her being christened “The Jimmy Carter of British Politics” by Liberal leader David Steel, and the voters seemed to agree, handing a huge majority to the SDP-Liberal Alliance with just under 48% of the vote. Labour suffered losses too, but the real casualties were the Conservative Party, who stumbled back into Parliament with less than 50 seats, Mrs Thatcher losing her own seat in Finchley by 234 votes.
Roy Jenkins, the former Labour Chancellor and President of the European Commission, and now prime minister, moved quickly to take advantage of the momentum of his historic win. Bills on constitutional reform, including changing the voting system, were quickly passed through the Commons, with the House of Lords, despite having only a tiny minority of SDP and Liberal peers, afraid to block a government which such a huge mandate. Jenkins also surprised many by making trades union reform a centrepiece of his government, although looking to Germany for inspiration. The new legislation swept away many of the old restrictive practices whilst putting in place generous profit sharing arrangements for employees, and tax incentives for the companies that signed up to them. The Jenkins government radically changed the approach of the government to industry and manufacturing, investing state money in companies willing to take the long term view, whilst pushing in the EEC for a dismantling of barriers to a European single market.
Jenkins then lobbied for, and succeeded in the appointment of a British President of the European Commission to take a tough approach to this agenda. European history books written years later credited the beginning of the final phase of European integration, a real single market, with the ten year European Commission led by President Thatcher.
Some years ago I was on Newstalk to discuss the anniversary of Margaret Thatcher’s coming to power in 1979. During the course of the discussion, I got into a heated row with a member of the Social Party over the myth that working class people didn’t benefit at all from her time in office. The reason it got heated was because, aside from the creation of the NHS by Clement Attlee (who disgracefully did not get a state funeral, having impacted British life at least as much, if not more, than Mrs T) Mrs Thatcher was responsible for the single most radical socialist act of the post-war years. She let people buy their council homes.
When you say this to people, they roll their eyes. Some on the left (in dwindling numbers, it has to be said) are outraged at the concept of selling council houses, but the reality is this: it was a radical act of wealth transfer from rich (through taxation) to the state (who used those taxes to build the houses) to poor, by selling an under-valued asset which appreciated in value and was now owned by people who had never owned such an asset before. This was wealth redistribution on a scale unheard of.
Of course, she banned those same local authorities from using the proceeds of those sales to build more houses, a short-sighted and (indeed hypocritical) act from a woman who lectured about freeing people from the dead hand of centralised control. Apparently people are free to do what they want, as long as she approves of it. But the policy did give poor people more actual wealth than they’d ever had before.
The greatest myth about her, however, is the “freedom” label that right-wingers attach to her. Economically, she did liberalise a lot of services, and did improve choice. But politically, while she was unquestionably a democrat, she was not big on devolving power away from the centre, holding onto it with all the zeal of a European Commissioner. When the people of London kept electing Labour Greater London Councils, she abolished them (the GLC, not the people). She refused to let the people of Scotland decide their own internal affairs, and she defended an electoral system which imposed a minority rule on the majority.
On the Falklands, she was right. The people of the Falklands should decide their own future, not some fascist dictator. On South Africa, she was just plain wrong.
The right, especially in the US, who will now attempt to create a cartoon version of her to fit whatever the agenda of the day is, will ignore the awkward stuff. She didn’t privatise the NHS, did believe in human activity causing climate change, didn’t introduce the death penalty, made abortion MORE available, and through the expansion of Qualified Majority Voting took a major leap towards a united Europe. And she took Britain into the Exchange Rate Mechanism, something eurosceptics quietly airbrush out.
But all that is mere detail. The reason Margaret Thatcher was a success was because she could speak to the gut. Unlike any Tory leader before, save maybe Stanley Baldwin (Churchill’s status was unique. His finest hour was not a Tory one), she could speak to the values of ordinary working Brits in a way that many of her successors, and certainly not the modern political leadership, can. Cameron and Milliband, with their I-eat-pasties-too pandering look just plain odd beside her, and that’s possibly her greatest contribution: that a leader can be blunt about what they stand for, and you can like it or lump it.
After all, it’s hard to imagine her worrying about whether people thought she ate pasties or not.
For a short period, they were almost vilified as traitors. In that period after Britain voted to leave the EU, those politicians who had campaigned to remain found inside themselves being demonised as not quite British. Many quietly retired at the next election, indeed some forced to after being told firmly that their constituency parties would not be renominating them as they sided with “a foreign power”. Everybody was a euroscptic now.
The populist eurosceptic press weren’t sure what to do with themselves. Having spent 30 years blaming a city in Belgium for all Britain’s woes, the sudden departure caused quite a psychological blow. The departure negotiations had been a source of great material, of course, but even they turned out to be less dramatic than expected. Despite some very nasty speeches in the French National Assembly, cooler heads prevailed, and an amicable trading relationship was found between Britain and the EU.
To great irony, it was the Irish, led by Sinn Fein’s minister for foreign affairs MaryLou McDonald, who put up the stoutest defence of a good deal for Britain, the Irish well aware of the importance of British trade. Indeed, the quiet but nevertheless public decision to beef up Britain’s Dublin embassy with a special EU affairs unit, to allow for the Irish to keep the British in the loop on issues of common interest, was noted by many. Opposition wags in the Dail were quick to remark that it wasn’t the first time Sinn Fein kept British intelligence in the picture.
The great liberation caused by British exit never happened. There were some savings from now defunct contributions to the EU budget, but when marked against EU regional spending in Britain, and the British contribution for access to the single market, as per Norway, the savings were modest, and certainly not the windfall eurosceptics had hinted at.
Likewise with the much ballyhooed end to Brussels redtape. When British civil servants attempted to strip out all the “unnecessary” EU regulation, they kept stumbling across laws on labelling poisons in the workplace or maternity rights that were too politically awkward to start abolishing. In short, many of the EU regulations were in fact the regulations the population of a modern industrialised state demanded of their politicians anyway. The horse, as they say, had bolted on that issue.
When British companies started finding themselves being targetted, particularly by the Irish enterprise development agencies, Whitehall got quite upset. The fact that there was now an Irish cabinet minister who made it her business to sit down with British business leaders to discuss upcoming Commission legislation within the single market, provided those companies invested in Ireland, raised hackles. It was the same with the City of London. In a joint press conference between Prime Minister Cooper and President Lagarde of France, the Frenchwoman delicately but firmly pointed out that the EU proposal to tax European pension and investment funds that went to London was, “with all due respect, none of Britain’s business. How we regulate EU capital flows is the business of EUmembers. If those decisions happen to impact non-members…”
A Gallic shrug sealed the comment.
Likewise with the inflow of immigrants which had done so much to aggravate the Tory right and its UKIP offshoot. With Britain out, the logistics of ending the freedom to work and travel proved to be much more challenging. The City of London was adamant about not loosing the cream of continental talent it attracted. Likewise, France, Spain and Ireland all had significant British populations that needed to be accomodated, and the Poles and rest of central Europe were willing to play hardball over the issue, refusing to tolerate the mass expulsion of large numbers of their citizens working in the UK. The possibility of large numbers of ex-pats living for years in France and Spain (Britain and Ireland worked out a side deal) suddenly being required to pay hefty residency and visa fees because they were no longer EU citizens became a front page issue in The Daily Mail, with that paper demanding some form of “special European passport for ex-pats”.
The Foreign Secretary, Mr Milliband, ordered by parliament to seek Britain’s fortune away from “decaying” Europe and instead in the glistening cities of Asia, found certain realities. Britain did still matter in the world, even outside the EU, but certainly not as an equal partner. Both India and China were of course eager to do business, but insisted upon the right of their citizens to travel to Britain to study, work and sell. The Chinese in particular were very firm, and so just as Britain moved to deny the Polish plumber entry, young Chinese and Indian men and women began to arrive in their hundreds of thousands to conduct business, study, inter-marry, pay taxes, require housing and healthcare and begin familes. Just as the Poles had. Within a few years, the Chinese government had begun to decry the unfairness of her citizens contributing to the UK’s coffers but not being able to vote on how they were spent. Mr Milliband vowed to give the issue serious consideration.
The fear campaign that suggested that Britain was economically doomed outside the EU proved to be nonsense. But British ministers found themselves outside the room constantly at major economic events. The EU/US Free Trade Area, and the EU/China trade pact both were conducted without British representation, but with British companies already bound to meet EU regulations with the single market now having to comply with more joint EU/US regulations for access to the Atlantic Free Trade Area. Indeed, when footage leaked from the EU/US talks of the Irish Taoiseach, Ms Power, briefing (and noting concerns from) a half dozen major British industrial and business leaders, all of whose firms had recently announced major job investments in Ireland, the British media was quick to cry foul. The Irish Department of Enterprise, on the other hand, reported a sharp spike in enquiries from major UK and US businesses to discuss the perceived Access-For-Jobs scheme.
Ten years out, it wasn’t the end of the world. Britain was still trading with the rest of Europe and the world. But the much suggested radical departure into a new British “Golden Age” just didn’t happen. Britain still had to pay attention to what commissioners and the European Parliament did, because that was the world Britain lived in. Globalisation was irreversible, and whether it was Brussels or Beijing, it wasn’t a matter of not letting other countries affect you. It was a question of shaping that effect, and that was going to happen whether inside the EU or not. Britain chose to go it alone.
Remember those scenes in the old Pink Panther movies where Inspector Clouseau’s boss, Chief Inspector Dreyfus (played by the underrated Herbert Lom) would hear Clouseau’s name, and immediately develop a tic, twitching his eye nervously, and eventually ending up in an asylum ranting and raving about Clouseau, and trying to kill him?
That’s British euroscepticism right there, wrapped up in an inability to approach the European question rationally. Instead, a blue flag with gold stars or a trigger word “Brussels” usually sets the ranting off, and off it goes, sometimes for days on end. It’s that irrationality, displayed by David Cameron’s fear of returning from an EU summit with anything approaching “compromise” that has Britain in its odd position now.
In recent days, Cameron and Osborne have been trying to staunchly defend Britain remaining in the EU, an organisation that they spend most of their time if not belittling, then certainly not defending. Nick Clegg gets lambasted, with his actual Britishness called into question, for suggesting that the EU is actually quite useful for Britain. Where will it all lead? That’s a tricky question, but one thing is clear. The events of recent days now means that any compromise by Cameron will be met with cries of “traitor” by the eurosceptics, because for them the ratchet only goes one way, and that is out. The more the EU is belittled, and the more aggressive the attitude becomes, the more likely that a vote will be held in the near future on British withdrawal from the union.
There’s nothing inherently undemocratic about that, except for the fact that most British politicians seem to want to keep Britain in the EU. But how can you sell such a bill of goods to your voters when you’ve spend years denigrating the product? It could prove impossible to get the anti-EU minky off their backs.
In last year’s US presidential election, there was a clear choice on offer. Both parties offered a pretty distinct social platform, and each an economic platform that had some differences. In the UK general election in May 2015, the European question will mean that voting for one party over the other will probably have a profound difference on what sort of country Britain will be post 2017 referendum, if it happens. The point is that the results would shape daily life.
The same cannot be said of an Irish general election. In the last 36 months we have experienced life under Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour. We can also see, looking North of the border, what life under Sinn Fein would look like, and it does not look that radically different than like life down here. Sinn Fein will of course claim that a govt south of the border has greater room for action, being a sovereign state. This is true. But the reality is that Sinn Fein is moving towards a policy centre which will make it pretty much where Labour are now. Talk to people in Donegal or Kerry or Monaghan about their Sinn Fein representatives, and they will tell you that aside from waving the tricolour they no more want to frighten the horses than your average Fianna Failer. Radical socialists they are not, as their bitterly disappointed leftwing voters will discover. Life under a Sinn Fein coalition will not even be as left wing as France under Hollande.
Of course, says you, there’s always the Greens and the People’s Front of Killiney. True, but the Greens, despite their best intentions and efforts, showed just how resistant the rest of the Irish political establishment is to reform. As for Joe and the gang: Jaysus, they couldn’t even run a parliamentary group of seven people without splitting four ways. They are populist panderers, not even socialists, so don’t be holding your breath.
So just don’t vote? Surely that’s a cop out/Is this what the Men/Women of 1916 stormed a biscuit factory for, etc? Not really. I’d still vote in a referendum, and if they reform the Seanad and elect the panels I might vote in that. But even that would be purely for the sport, that I enjoy a good election count and the transfers and all the rest. But would it change much. Nah. This country, and here’s the thing, does not want change. We are actually a politically content people. The fact that a majority of our voters support FF or FG in polls confirms that. So move along, there’s nothing to see here.
Listening to David Cameron’s speech on the EU, I was reminded of that scene in “Blazing Saddles” where sheriff Bart threatens to shoot himself to avoid being shot by the townsfolk. The problem he faces is that the threat Cameron is making is not greater than the threat major concessions would cause for other leaders of other EU countries. Imagine anyone of them coming home to tell their home parliament that they had agreed to letting Britain undercut their home businesses by freeing the UK from EU employment legislation?
There is also an issue which has been raised by über blogger Jon Worth: if there is a referendum between leaving the EU or signing up to a Tory negotiated right wing version of British membership, what will progressive pro-Europeans in the the UK do? At least in every Irish referendum there is the option of voting for the status quo, a choice that Cameron will deny the British people. Labour and the Lib Dems could always promise that if they were returned to power they will just opt Britain back into social rights, I suppose.
But what of the nightmare scenario? What’s that, you ask? The ultimate nightmare, that Cameron loses the 2015 general election and so the referendum is called off, and we spend another ten years listening to British Eurosceptics banging on about the evils of the EU? Oh lordy. I think I’d prefer if they left.