Thirty-five years ago, on the evening of 28 March 1979, I watched from the House of Commons press gallery as Jim Callaghan’s minority Labour government was defeated by one vote on a no-confidence motion moved by opposition leader Margaret Thatcher. As Callaghan declared with pious dignity, “Mr Speaker, we shall take our case to the country,” Labour MPs stood in their places, linked arms and sang a chorus of “The Red Flag” while Conservative MPs conducted their singing derisively.
I flatter myself that I realised I was witnessing the first act of what would be a radical shift in British governance. Callaghan was a tired old socialist while Thatcher was a neoliberal warrior, a zealot, armed with the theology of Friedrich Hayek and hell-bent on tearing apart and remaking her stagnating nation. Even if this insight eluded me at the time, there was little doubt about Britain’s stagnation. We were all still reeling from the “winter of discontent” – the strikes by auto workers, petrol tanker drivers, public transport workers, ambulance workers, garbage collectors, grave diggers, etc, etc. The so-called Lib–Lab pact that had protected Callaghan’s government had collapsed and the prime minister had helped to drive the final nail into Labour’s coffin when he gormlessly replied, “What crisis?” when asked about the meltdown of the nation’s vital services.
So there was no surprise when Thatcher swept into office five weeks later and started to implement the brutally individualistic economic and social programs that prompted riots and deepened social divisions and inequality across Britain, buoyed for a time by her latter-day reprise of Queen Boadicea in the Falklands war. Only a decade later did her colleagues finally dump her out of exasperation at her divisive high-handedness.
Until a few weeks ago, thirty-five years and four prime ministers had passed since I had been more than a transit passenger in British airports. But the desire to see the place again finally became irresistible. How much had changed since 1977–80 when I was a young man with three sons living with my late wife in a lovely Hertfordshire village on the outskirts of London’s teeming metropolis? What would be familiar? And what strange?
Of course you can’t judge Britain by vast and wealthy London. But two recent weeks spent in and around London and York proved at once reassuring and unsettling. There is evidence of real national progress but also hints that old patterns of political and social history may be tending to repeat themselves as new forces emerge to impose strains on the social fabric.
In some ways Britain seems like a nation simmering and bubbling over the increasing heat of new political and social movements – most notably the United Kingdom Independence Party, or UKIP, an anti-immigration, anti–European Union right-wing populist party, and the Scottish independence movement, pushing hard to separate from the United Kingdom 307 years after the Treaty of Union. If successful, these movements could prove as significant as Thatcherism in reshaping Britain’s political terrain and economic future. But despite some spectacular recent successes it remains to be seen – possibly at the September Scottish referendum and possibly at next year’s general election – how effective UKIP and the Scottish separatists will be.
But first the good news. Much of Britain looks incredibly prosperous and tranquil – and clean – to an ageing survivor of Callaghan’s winter of discontent and Thatcher’s destructive economic egoism. The best of Britain’s past still stands proud, preserved and pristine (especially the Minster at York). Economic growth is now above 3 per cent, the highest in Europe, inflation is a low 1.6 per cent and unemployment is 6.9 per cent (and only 4.9 per cent for those aged over twenty-five).
It’s harder to judge whether Britain’s prosperity is distributed more fairly than it was three-and-a-half decades ago. But there is reportedly dire poverty in parts of the north and west (though it isn’t apparent in York), with a recent report calculating that average spending power in Cornwall is 36 per cent below the EU average.
Britain’s population has increased by 5.2 million in the past thirty-five years, from 56.2 million to 61.4 million. And it is significantly blacker and browner than it was in the late 1970s. Some 14 per cent of the population is now from African, Middle Eastern and South Asian ethnic groups, and demographers estimate these minorities will account for almost a third of the population in thirty years. So Britain is a small and crowded place. In shopping malls, housing estates and city streets the sheer density of the crowds can be intimidating.
Happily, the British of all ethnicities seem overwhelmingly to be tolerant and forbearing. People do seem polite and respectful; perhaps they realise that the alternative would be intolerable in this mixed and teeming country. But there is little visible evidence of racial mixing: different groups seem to keep largely to themselves and to socialise separately, even if they work together without undue strain.
Less happily, the increasing visibility of the black, brown and Islamic populations has spawned the UKIP, which has capitalised on the anxiety of old, white, Anglo-Celtic England about its identity and traditions. UKIP, led by Nigel Farage, a grinning middle-class agitator of Huguenot ancestry, wants to take Britain out of the European Union and to greatly restrict immigration, both popular (if, for the moment, minority) stances within the governing Conservative Party lead by David Cameron in coalition with the Liberal Democrats.
It is stretching things only slightly to say that UKIP is what you get when the racist National Front of the 1970s stops shaving its head, swaps its t-shirt, metal-studded leather jacket and steel-tipped kicking boots for pinstriped suits and Oxford brogues, and learns to talk proper. But UKIP’s stunning successes in recent municipal and European parliament elections reflects the depth of the concerns of Britain’s white anglo-celtic majority. UKIP is making the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Labour extremely anxious.
Consider this. In recent municipal elections UKIP increased its numbers from two to 163 across the country, mostly at the cost of Liberal Democrat and Tory councillors. In European parliament elections UKIP increased its numbers from thirteen to twenty-four, mostly at the expense of the Conservatives. It did so with no economic or other policies and with only generalised declarations from Farage of hatred of immigrants and of the European parliament, in which UKIP will now be a force in combination with other European right-wing populist groups.
UKIP’s success has confronted David Cameron with an agonising dilemma: how far will he have to rebalance Conservative policy against Europe and against immigration to protect his right-wing from further UKIP depredations in next year’s general election? Cameron is a moderate on both issues but he is being pushed to more militant positions. For Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, UKIP’s gains have raised the spectre of the demise of his leadership and of his party as the junior governing coalition partner.
British commentators are suggesting that the British two-party system is evolving into a four-party system, with the Conservatives, Labour, the Liberal Democrats and UKIP. There is no consensus on whether UKIP is merely a passing phenomenon or whether it is here for the long haul. Next year’s general election may clarify matters. Cameron’s troubles have been made worse by disclosures that his pledge to cut net immigration is in tatters, with the figure having risen to more than 200,000 last year.
Compounding this problem is the real possibility that the United Kingdom is headed for break-up after 18 September this year, when some 4.1 million Scots vote in a referendum on whether Scotland should become a separate, independent country. It is another echo of 1979, when a similar Scottish referendum was held but failed because the pro-independence majority was too small.
A key difference now is that there has been a vigorous Scottish parliament at Holyrood since 1999 and it is dominated by the fiercely pro-independence Scottish National Party and other pro-independence parties. Conservative and Labour politicians in Britain oppose Scottish independence, and they are promising wider taxing powers to the Scottish parliament to try to induce Scots to vote to stay. But the rival lobbies, Yes Scotland and Better Together, are now campaigning hard north of Hadrian’s Wall.
There is some vague sense that the practical difficulties and costs will ultimately persuade the cautious Scots to reject outright independence, but the outcome is uncertain. And there are major implications for British and European politics. The departure of the present fifty-nine mostly Labour Scottish MPs from the House of Commons would probably enable David Cameron’s Conservatives to govern in their own right without the coalition with the Liberal Democrats. That would be bound to reduce Labour’s prospects of regaining office. And the departure of the pro-European Scots would make a vote for withdrawal more likely in Cameron’s promised 2017 referendum on Britain’s EU membership.
David Cameron and Labour leader Ed Miliband both face this complex witches’ brew of issues as they prepare for next year’s election. Both are trying to project themselves as pragmatic, sensible centrist leaders, but they often appear instead to be rather vacuous poseurs. Cameron is no Margaret Thatcher, but he has said, “We are all Thatcherites now” and implemented some deeply inequitable social policies and welfare cuts which have been severely criticised by church leaders. Miliband promises a more humane and interventionist politics, but he comes across as a bit of a worry-wart.
The point is that the coming British election will not be able to be reduced to the popular slogan, “It’s the economy stupid.” It will be about the deep-seated fears of the majority about their national identity and future in a much more multiracial and multicultural Britain, and about their national sovereignty and independence in a much more supra-national and assertive Europe. At present the British (and others in France, Holland, Austria and Hungary) are turning to the minor parties of populist bigotry, and that is unsettling.
But 2014 is not 1979. Cameron lacks Thatcher’s zealotry; Miliband has none of Callaghan’s avuncular smugness. There are no race riots in Brixton, although there were ugly and damaging flare-ups in 2011 and 2013 that still rankle in some areas. The cold war is at least contained; trade union power has declined; extreme poverty has abated. And they have banned smoking on the London Underground and cleaned up and renewed the stations and trains, which now seem entirely free of graffiti. That’s something to be cheerful about after a thirty-five-year absence. •