RICHARD LITTLEJOHN: No Falklands War, no miner’s strike and no Blair. Oh, and we’d have been out of Europe YEARS ago – the turning points in history that could have led to my Alternative Universe
Try to imagine another Britain, with a markedly different modern history. No Mrs Thatcher in Downing Street, no Falklands War, no year-long miners’ strike in 1984, no Prime Minister Tony Blair
Try to imagine another Britain, with a markedly different modern history.
No Mrs Thatcher in Downing Street, no Falklands War, no year-long miners’ strike in 1984, no Prime Minister Tony Blair.
A parallel universe in which Nigel Farage would be an unknown City trader and Britain would have left the EU decades ago without the trauma of the 2016 Brexit referendum.
Hard to believe? Not at all.
The past tends to be presented as a series of fixed milestones, focused on particular dates. Think 1066 and all that. For instance, historians agree on the seismic events of the past half century, such as Labour’s 1997 landslide and the 2016 Brexit referendum.
But none of these happened in isolation — and may never have happened at all, as I attempt to prove in a new Radio 2 series, which starts tomorrow night. I’ve been looking at the pivotal years which changed Britain, and they’re not necessarily the years most people think they are.
What I’ve tried to do is ignore the accepted wisdom and concentrate on how we got where we are today, through the eyes of those who were around at the time.
The past tends to be presented as a series of fixed milestones, focused on particular dates. Think 1066 and all that. I begin in 1972. Prime Minister Ted Heath achieved his dream of dragging Britain into what was then called the Common Market
For instance, 1979 is always seen as the definitive year of the Seventies, when Margaret Thatcher’s victory ushered in 18 years of unbroken Conservative government, which transformed the political and economic landscape.
But I begin seven years earlier, in 1972, the year after I started my newspaper career. Much of the turmoil and division still tearing us apart, especially over Europe, can be traced back to that year.
Prime Minister Ted Heath achieved his dream of dragging Britain into what was then called the Common Market. It was a close run thing. The Bill paving the way for our membership scraped through the Commons by just eight votes. We’ve been living with the consequences ever since.
The full scale miners strike of 1972 brought to national prominence a young union official called Arthur Scargill and his thuggish tactic of sending mobs of flying pickets to close fuel depots and power stations
Heath was eventually brought down in 1974 when he called a General Election on the issue of who runs Britain: the Government or the trades unions? He didn’t get the answer he wanted.
The catalyst for that election was a bitter and prolonged miners’ strike — the second in two years — which led to widespread power cuts and saw industry reduced to working a three-day week.
But the seeds had actually been sown in 1972 when the National Union of Mineworkers staged their first full-scale walkout since the General Strike in 1926.
It brought to national prominence a young union official called Arthur Scargill and his thuggish tactic of sending mobs of flying pickets to close fuel depots and power stations.
Heath’s humiliation led directly to Thatcher becoming the first female Tory leader. But in 1978, she trailed in the polls to Labour Prime Minister Jim Callaghan
Victory over Heath also convinced Scargill ten years later he could deploy industrial muscle to bring down the democratically elected Thatcher government. That didn’t end so well for him, or the NUM.
Mrs Thatcher, a relatively junior member of Heath’s Cabinet, had learned the lessons of 1972 and 1974 and was ready for him. The miners were routed. Had things unfolded differently, Mrs T may well have been little more than a historical footnote.
Heath’s humiliation led directly to her becoming the first female Tory leader.
But in 1978, she trailed in the polls to Labour Prime Minister Jim Callaghan. I was a young industrial correspondent on the Birmingham Evening Mail back then and can remember precisely how and when Callaghan blew it.
Although we associate the industrial anarchy of the notorious Winter of Discontent with 1979, it actually kicked off in September 1978 and had its origins that summer.
Unilateral withdrawal was part of the Labour party’s 1983 manifesto. Even Neil Kinnock, who would later make the Brussels gravy train the foundation of his family’s fortune, signed up to pulling out
I was sharing a pint with Terry Duffy, who had just been invited to Downing Street after being elected president of Britain’s second largest union, the engineers.
Terry told me that Callaghan was planning to impose a five per cent pay limit to tackle the rampant inflation which dogged Britain in the Seventies. The unions will never wear that, I remarked. They will if it means it helps Callaghan win a snap General Election, Terry said.
I’ll never forget that conversation. The exclusive story proved my ticket to Fleet Street. It was the first anyone had heard of Callaghan’s plans for another round of pay restraint.
The night before he was due to address the TUC conference in Brighton, Sunny Jim summoned Britain’s most powerful union leaders to his farm in Sussex and led them to believe he was going to hold an autumn election. Yet despite persuading the unions to write large cheques for the campaign, Callaghan changed his mind, taunting them with a rendition of the old music hall song ‘There was I waiting at the church’.
All at once, as the song goes, he left them in the lurch.
The atmosphere in the smoke-filled bars of Brighton that night was poisonous. The Winter of Discontent was about to start in earnest. Ford car workers were first to strike, followed by lorry drivers and even bakers, leading to food shortages and panic buying.
1992 was a momentous year for the Royal Family, with the publication of Andrew Morton’s Diana book, marriage break-ups and toe-sucking, culminating with the fire at Windsor Castle
The public sector chaos, strikes by everyone from dustmen to grave diggers, and rats in the street, came later. It could all have been avoided if Callaghan had held the election, which he almost certainly would have won.
If he had, it would have been the end of Margaret Thatcher, as the Tories would have unceremoniously dumped her.
There would have been no privatisations in the early Eighties, no miners’ strike, it is safe to say Labour would not have taken us to war in the Falklands and would have taken us out of Europe, without a referendum.
The Bennite Left were always ferociously opposed to what would eventually become the EU, including one Jeremy Corbyn.
Unilateral withdrawal was part of the party’s 1983 manifesto. Even Neil Kinnock, who would later make the Brussels gravy train the foundation of his family’s fortune, signed up to pulling out.
But with the party’s lurch to the Left after Callaghan’s catastrophic miscalculation, Labour lost that election spectacularly.
Fast forward to 1992 and the Tories are still in government, with Thatcher deposed and Johnny Major at the helm.
No doubt many people will pinpoint the Blair landslide in 1997 as the pivotal year of that decade. But I’d argue that the course of history was changed irrevocably five years earlier.
And, naturally, there’s some great music. There’s also a glorious cameo from the wonderful Joan Armatrading, looking back on starring alongside Bob Dylan at the Blackbushe Festival in 1978. It goes without saying I was there, too
Most commentators expected Kinnock to win the 1992 election. He thought he was going to win it, too, instilling in him not just a sense of over-confidence, but also a nasty streak of hubris.
That emerged at the famous, stage-managed Sheffield rally, when Kinnock came on stage like a balding rock god in front of 10,000 adoring supporters. He screamed, and screamed, and screamed, doing a passable impression of a rapturous Bob Seger homecoming concert at Detroit’s Tiger Stadium: ‘Weeee’re Awwwwlllrrriiiiight!’
Mrs K was already in John Lewis, measuring the curtains for No. 10. But this extraordinary, demented outburst from the Welsh Windbag gave swing voters pause for thought. Major was returned with a majority of 21.
Kinnochio was devastated. Oh dear, how sad, never mind. But, as former Labour Cabinet minister Alan Johnson concedes, it was a good election to lose.
Within months, Major’s government was convulsed by the ERM (Exchange Rate Mechanism) crisis, which saw interest rates rise from ten to 15 per cent in a single afternoon.
Major’s homespun credibility and slim majority never recovered, as Tory Eurosceptics rebelled, pretty much daily for the rest of the parliament. That rollercoaster day, which became known as Black Wednesday, wrecked the Conservatives’ reputation for sound economic management.
I was presenting the afternoon show on LBC Radio and can remember an increasingly flustered business editor rushing in and out of the studio every five minutes trying to keep up with the Chancellor’s doomed attempts to support the pound.
After a couple of hours, he was lost for words. ‘It’s all gone Humpty Dumpty, hasn’t it?’ I volunteered.
‘That’s about the size of it, Rich,’ he replied.
Former Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie tells a hilarious story about a phone call he received from Major late on Black Wednesday.
Major asked Kelvin how he intended to cover the events of the day.
‘Well, Prime Minister,’ Kelvin replied. ‘I’ve got a large bucket of ordure [he didn’t use the word ordure] on my desk and I’m about to tip it all over your head.’
‘Oh, Kelvin, you are a wag,’ said Major.
But MacKenzie wasn’t joking. It was the end of a love affair between The Sun and the Tories which had dated back to Mrs Thatcher. In 1997, the Sun backed Labour.
We also hear from a young City metals trader, whose life was changed for ever that day. Appalled by the turmoil on the markets and the £2 billion an hour being spent by the Treasury trying to keep Britain in the ERM, a 28-year-old Nigel Farage resigned from the Conservative Party and decided to dedicate his life to getting Britain out of the EU.
It’s also worth noting that had Labour won in 1992, they would also have had to deal with the financial crisis caused by Britain’s ERM membership, which they also supported. That would have cost them dearly, the Tories may have bounced back at the next election and the Blair Revolution might never have happened.
But once the fallout from Black Wednesday laid waste to the Tories, and Tony Blair succeeded the late John Smith as Labour leader, the result of the next general election was never in doubt. Things couldn’t get much worse for Major — or Her Maj.
It was a momentous year for the Royal Family, with the publication of Andrew Morton’s Diana book, marriage break-ups and toe-sucking, culminating with the fire at Windsor Castle, which ended with the Queen talking movingly about her ‘annus horribilis’.
My fourth pivotal year is 2013 — not an immediately obvious choice, but one which changed Britain for ever, thanks to David Cameron’s decision to announce that if he won the next general election he would hold a binding in/out referendum on our membership of the EU.
It was also the year when more than 500,000 immigrants arrived in the UK, and would prove to be a tipping point in opposition to open borders. Cameron had been panicked into the announcement by the rise of Ukip and growing unrest among the ‘swivel-eyed loons’ on his own backbenches and the Tory Party in the country.
But he thought that his coalition with the Lib Dems would endure and he’d never have to do it. The rest, as they say . . .
Anyway, there’s plenty more in the series, from the first gay pride march in 1972 to the unexpected legalisation of same-sex marriage by a Tory government in 2013.
And, naturally, there’s some great music, from favourites of mine such as Graham Parker, The Clash and Warren Zevon to Jo Whiley on the birth of Britpop and beyond.
There’s also a glorious cameo from the wonderful Joan Armatrading, looking back on starring alongside Bob Dylan at the Blackbushe Festival in 1978. It goes without saying I was there, too.
Best line of the lot, which will have Remoaners crying with despair, comes from Nigel Farage.
Talking about his decision on Black Wednesday to go into politics, join Ukip and mastermind Brexit: ‘If I’d known it was going to take 27 years, I wouldn’t have bothered!’
The Years That Changed Britain For Ever, presented by Richard Littlejohn and produced by Jodie Keane, begins on Radio 2 at 9pm tomorrow live and on demand on the BBC Sounds app.
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