Sunday, 17 May 2015

So what happened at the general election:
A partly-personal meditation (1)

By fellow Hungarian cartoonist, Vicky

This is a little later than intended.  I am sure other people could do (and probably have done) this far better than I can but - just for my own sake - I want to think through the results of the recent general election to consider the background and its significance. I haven’t done any research for this, it is pure recollection but for the checking of dates. I hope friends will put me right in matters of detail. I am not going to link to everything, only that which might have been forgotten.

First a little personal background: Butskellism and beyond

The political landscape has changed considerably since the first elections I remember in this country. The Hungarian Uprising, of which we were refugees, coincided with the Suez Crisis. We arived in England on 2 December 1956: Sir Anthony Eden, the prime minister, resigned in January 1957. Our first government was Conservative under Harold Macmillan. Macmillan was a One-Nation Tory, a Keynesian who believed in a mixed economy and in maintaining the welfare state as set up by Clement Attlee. Living standards were rising after the lows of the war so why change things?  His two famous speeches:  ‘You have never had it so good‘ (1957) and  ‘The winds of change’ (1960) - which marked the beginning of decolonisation - seemed to define the era and the kind of place Britain was. 

Then came the night of the long knives (1962), the Cuba Crisis (1962), the Profumo scandal (1963), the assassination of Kennedy (1963), and Macmillan’s resignation, followed by the election of Sir Alec Douglas-Home, or ‘old death’s head’ as my mother called him. His brief administration was the end of that Britain. My parents (my father a member of the communist party in Hungary with my ‘class-alien’ mother to the left of him)  helped vote in Harold Wilson in 1964. The new Britain already had Private Eye and Beyond the Fringe. It was the age of the first Cool Britannia (though we didn't call it that) and would last about five or six years.

Harold Wilson in 1964

I came to faint political consciousness of a residually optimistic sort in the era of Wilson and the Beatles. I wasn’t old enough to be protesting violently against Vietnam in Grosvenor Square in 1968, or rather I was, at nineteen but, like a well-behaved immigrant boy, I was still constrained by my parents. I was, in any case, confused. I had no sooner woken up, at school,  to The Summer of Love in 1967 than it was collapsing already.

1968, I suspect, was the year my parents began to retreat from the democratic left-wing positions that they were completely to abandon by 1974. My mother was desperately ill in ‘74 and already suicidal (she was to kill herself the next year). I was married but my life hadn’t come to what my parents had hoped and my brother was suffering under the harsh regime of a music professor who made excessive demands of him. It was a miserable time for them. To my parents, brought up under secure if oppressive authoritarian conditions and settled in a country which seemed the epitome of freedom in the fifties, it would all have seemed dangerously anarchic.

Leaving aside the personal now, it seemed the country had arrived at a kind of political consensus between 1958 and 1964. That consensus was called Butskellism by some (see cartoon at top),  after the Tory R. A. Butler and the Labour leader just before Wilson, Hugh Gaitskell.

Bustkellism seemed a comfortable place to many liberal minded people (not that my parents were liberal minded in the post-1960s sense) but 1968 raised some serious question marks about it and the seventies were to raise many more. 

Under the surface of Butskellism, of course, the old class system was still very much in place. There was an increasingly irrelevant but plutocratic upper class, the various levels of the middle class, and a clearly definable working class composed chiefly of those working in state industries: in the docks, in the steelworks, in electricity, in hospitals, in transport and above all in coal. These forces were unionised and a vital part of the Labour movement. To be Labour was to be modern. To be modern meant being part of the broad left-liberal movement, which would of course involve Labour at its core.

It was a Britain that could still remember the war, the creation of the welfare state, and those the never-had-it-so-good days as a touchstone of stability  The Butskellite world might have been stuffy but was tinged with idealism. Under the historical circumstances that idealism grew wild in several directions at once. The end of the sixties - and 1973 above all - put a cap on that, stifled it, and cranked up a pressure that was to become much more explosive.

But that’s just Britain. Europe and the Cold War were just as important in forming a political climate.


Poetry Pleases! said...

Dear George

I am very sorry to hear about your mother. When I was at Oxford I occasionally used to see Harold Wilson ensconced on one of the benches in the University College gardens. I hate the Tories and I loathe the SNP so I certainly had an election night to remember.

Best wishes from Simon R. Gladdish

James O'Fee said...

I was living and working in London about 1971. At a party a friend's girlfriend made a comment that I vividly remember. She said "I'm voting Conservative. They are better with money." From Northern Ireland, and thinking myself on the left, the idea that the left/right split was anything to do with handling money had never occurred to me. John Major's ignominious exit from the ERM destroyed the public's confidence for a generation in the Conservatives' fiscal probity, and the result was Tony Blair. Gordon Brown destroyed his party's reputation on the issue, and the result was David Cameron. Ed Milliband continued this course, in spades, and the result is more David Cameron. "It's the economy, stupid."

George S said...

Let's not move too fast. In 1968 I knew little or nothing about economics. I wouldn't say I know very much now, but certainly more than back then. John Major is still in the future, let alone Blair or Brown.

Padraig Colman said...

George, your memories of post-war Britain are similar to mine:

George S said...

Thank you, Padraig. Yours is going down a more detailed family line than mine is likely to do. I like yours very much.