Saturday, 23 May 2015

So what happened at the general election (4)
1973-1979: the angry brigades

I have stacked my cards heavily on 1973 though one commenter on the Facebook link to these pages, John, says that for him personally the psychological breaking point - the end of the sixties - was 1968. Paris did it for him. Having been active in politics with the Young CND he left to wander the globe and didn't move back into politics until the Thatcher years.

Mine, like John's, is, as I said at the beginning, a personal view. I feel something in the world cracked in 1973 and that we entered a kind of vortex.

1973 was, in the first place, a major reaction to the sunny optimism of the summer of love.

America, post-Watergate, was full of self-doubt. Parts of New York, and Central Park in particular, became no-go areas. Black Power had already moved into its most military phase with the Black Panthers. The Soviet Union was becoming the mafia state it has now fully blossomed into. Tensions were high. There was Iraq and the Ayatollah Khomeini. There was Eurocommunism and the Baader Meinhoff gang (also known as the Red Army Faction)  in Germany. There was the kidnapping and killing of Aldo Moro, the Italian prime minister by the Red Brigades. Ireland was witnessing great violence in the expanding Troubles. In England there was The Angry Brigade and the Animal Liberation Front. There was even the Paedophile Information Exchange that survived for ten years from 1974. And people are surprised by Jimmy Saville and Rolf Harris etc. Autre temps, autre moeurs. The post-war order was splintering not only under economic pressure but under the pressure of failed hopes.

We slipped from San Francisco and Woodstock into the vacancies of stadium rock and Abigail's Party with only David Bowie and lesser Glam Rock bands for company. From Donna Summer, Abba, and the Bee Gees to the Sex Pistols and punk is hardly any time at all.

And, since much of the political change was a product of the world economic crisis that sprang out of the quadrupling of oil prices the world's sympathies began to shift from Israel to the PLO and Yasser Arafat. Always be nice to those controlling your oil supply and look to see their point of view. That is, of course, an unfairly cynical view but age is sometimes as much a sceptic about what is now considered virtuous and nice as about what is now considered wicked, and what could be considered more wicked now than paedophilia?

The six years between 1973 and 1979 are a crucible where the next phase of world and global economy and politics is created.

The crises of 1973 shifted into the big crisis of 1974, the defeat of Heath on the key question of  'who governs'. In 1972 the miners went on strike for the first time since 1926. The NUM was demanding a 43% pay rise. Heath's government offered about 8%. Here is some background to the events. The miners sent out flying pickets, that is to say pickets who didn't just stop all movement at their own place of work but at others and in other branches of industry too.

The result was industrial standstill  uncluding the famous three-day week which lasted into 1974 - a national traumatic event that was to have very long term effects -  and the curious situation whereby miners became the best paid workers for a year but within that time had dropped to eighteenth place. Events followed from there. As the link above says:

By 1973 however, the miners had moved from first in the industrial wages league to eighteenth. The miners saw however, that the poor economic situation that the country was in could be used to their advantage. The Arab-Israeli War was causing oil prices to soar, and throughout the country, relations between the industrial unions and the Government were hostile as the Tories were attempting to introduce pay freezes and restraints to help the economy. 

In late 1973, the miners once more voted to take industrial action if their pay demands were not meet. They were not, and so on the 9th February 1974, the miners came out on strike.

The figures tell a story of their own. High inflation was a stress no government could live with for long. Heath called the election and lost. The years after under first Harold Wilson's minority government,  then under Jim Callaghan, constituted a power struggle betwen government and the unions, at one high point of which Wilson told Hugh Scanlon, head of the engineering union: Get your tanks off my lawn.


The military analogy used by Wilson is rather extraordinary, isn't it? It suggests that the unions and the party formed to represent them were on opposite sides of a war. And indeed there was something of a war going on with the country as a battlefield. Sky-high inflation, a depletion of reserves, a vast loss in the country's prestige (Britain as the sick man of Europe, a term originally applied to Turkey), the sense now of justified conflict, now of despair dominate the period as I remember it from the point of a view of a young father, a schoolteacher, and aspiring but rarely successful poet. And, of course, as I mentioned in an earlier post, my mother's suicide in 1975 and trying to be of some solace to my father. I think it was during this period or shortly after that my father went Tory, having been visited by the local party who gladly took him in. It wasn't because he was a man who wanted to protect his privileges or because he had a contempt for the poor. It was because he was frightened of chaos.

But what was the miners' strike of 1972 and the threatened one of 1974 about? Was it simply about a fair wage, or greed as the Tory press had it? I don't think so. There was a chink in the armour of history, of capitalism, not only in Britain but all over Europe, and indeed the world. A certain dedicated, revolutionary ruthlessness set in. If there had to be sacrifices, well there had to be sacrifices. The mid-seventies presented a moment when the constantly re-defining Left saw a chance of re-defining the world. That might have been the last time. But which Left, and how?

1 comment:

Poetry Pleases! said...

Dear George

According to conspiracy theorists, Edward Heath was one of the worst pederasts of all. Apparently, Jimmy Savile used to smuggle young boys aboard Heath's yacht 'Morning Cloud' who were seldom seen again. Changing the subject, congratulations on being nominated Laszlo Krasznahorkai's hero in today's Guardian Review. High praise indeed!

Best wishes from Simon R. Gladdish