Naked Politics Blogger
‘Perhaps once every thirty years, there is a sea change in politics. It then doesn’t matter what you say or what you do. There is a shift in what the public wants and what it approves of’. These are the stoic words of former Prime Minister, James Callaghan, reflecting on his election defeat at the hands of Margaret Thatcher. 1979 saw the social democratic post-war settlement fragment and the ushering in of a new era of British politics. This “sea change” Callaghan spoke of has arguably occurred twice: 1945 and 1979, but could it be that the tide is about to turn again?
The parallels between the final years of the 1970s and our present condition are striking. Once again our relationship with Europe is at the heart of the national conversation. Once more we have a minority government being propped up by a smaller party and much like in 1979 people are seriously questioning if the dominant economic model is working.
The pains of minority government
The present ‘Confidence and Supply’ arrangement between the DUP and Conservatives is nothing new. In the general election of 1974, the second that year, the Labour Party won by just 3 seats. Over time this slim majority ebbed away and forced the government to look to other parties for support. Between March 1977 and July 1978, Labour PM James Callaghan limped on with the crutch of the Liberal Party. The “Lib-Lab” pact as it was known was also occasionally topped up by support from the Nationalist Ulster Unionists. Comparatively, Mrs May has an easier task for she only has to negotiate with the DUP to gain a working majority. But this has not come cheaply. The DUP only agreed to support the ailing Conservative government in return for 1 billion pounds in extra funding for Northern Ireland . Which is equivalent to £100 million per DUP MP.
Callaghan didn’t have anything like this war chest at his disposal, instead he had to rely on a good working relationship with the Liberal leader David Steel and the promise of influence. In return for their support for key bills, budgets and confidence votes the Liberals were offered the chance to explore options in parliament, for devolution and electoral reform. This arrangement seems loftily idealistic compared to the grubby and transactional nature of the DUP- Conservative arrangement. Whether this government lasts longer than the Lib-Lab pact remains to be seen. But what is worth remembering is that an analogous period of minority Labour government made way for 18 years of Conservative rule. Perhaps a period of weak Conservative government may encourage voters to look to HM Opposition to take up the reins.
Britain and Europe
In the 1970s, like today, Britain’s relationship with the rest of Europe is at the top of the political agenda. In 1975, 67.2 % of the electorate voted to continue to be members of the European Economic Area (later known as the EU). 41 years later, on 23rd June 2016 the British people narrowly decided to leave the European Union. Both referendums were moments of immense importance that set the course of the nation. Both decisions were taken at a times of uncertainty and discontent. In the 1970s, Britain had emerged from the peace as the sick-man of Europe; she was stricken of her colonial possessions and had an economy with stuttering growth. As Dean Acheson, the US Secretary of State in the Truman administration, remarked in 1962: ‘Britain had lost an empire, but had not yet found a role’. By 2016, although there had been a notional recovery from the economic crash in 2008, there was a sense that the recovery hadn’t visited all parts of the country equally. There was and still is a pervasive feeling in areas that heavily supported Brexit that they have been “left behind”. For leave voters in areas like the Welsh valleys, northern England and the Midlands the idea of “taking back control” was seductive. Just as joining the EEC in 1973 marked a definite end to the days of Empire, so Brexit marks an end to Britain’s role as a reluctant leader in Europe.
1979 is synonymous in many people’s minds with not being able to bury the dead. The first few months of 1979 saw grave diggers, hospital staff and many other public sector workers go on strikes, a period later dubbed the “Winter of Discontent”. The high point came in January 1979 when 1.5 million workers were on strike. This represented the largest scale industrial action in the UK since the General Strike of 1926. Against this backdrop, the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher were able to cut through with a message that promised to bring the unions to heel and restore Britain. In a party political broadcast in early 1979, Thatcher issued a thinly veiled warning to unions: ‘If someone is confronting our essential liberties, if someone is inflicting injury, harm and damage on the sick, my God, I will confront them’. Aided by newspapers like The Sun and the advertising agency Saatchi and Saatchi, the Conservatives were able to win a comfortable majority in the General Election of 1979. This election victory allowed the Conservatives to push through a neoliberal agenda that saw the UK sell off public assets, deregulate the finance industry and devastate traditional working class communities.
The British public have lost patience with austerity. This has been borne out in polls since late 2015. For instance, in October 2015, 52% percent of those polled by YouGov wanted to see an end to or an easing off of public spending cuts. More recently the beleaguered Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond said that the British people were “weary of austerity”. Furthermore, in a poll conducted by the Daily Mirror many of Labour’s most prominent policies, such as renationalising the railways and banning zero hour contracts, were shown to have a clear majority in favour.
But perhaps most symbolic of all is the tragedy of Grenfell Tower. The full facts are still emerging about the blaze at Grenfell Tower but it is largely agreed that cost cutting claimed lives. The National Audit Office says that local government has faced budget cuts of around 37%. It is difficult to think about what could have been different if the local authority had installed sprinklers or forked out for better quality cladding on the outside of the building. Public shock and anger about Grenfell Tower are palpable.This was nowhere more visible than at the reception Theresa May received when she visited the residents. David Lammy, MP for Tottenham has labelled the fire as ‘Corporate Manslaughter’.
Making predictions about British politics at the moment is only for the very brave, but it is just possible that we are living through another sea change.