UK Politics

Made Glorious Summer?

Gordon recently posted the new Labour election broadcast “against the odds” which makes use of historical images of labour movement successes: Nye Bevan, Cable Street and the Suffragettes, the film seems to suggest, in some way validate another term of Gordon Brown.

One period of Labour history that will never be mentioned in in an official broadcast is the one characterised by a three-word phrase that evokes so much more and which is regularly brought up as a trump card by Tories: “the winter of discontent.” Come on admit it, images of strikers and urban blight are flashing through your mind already aren’t they? Let’s let the Daily Mail help you out:

… rampant inflation, industrial chaos, economic disasters.… Economically, the UK was the sick man of Europe. As Germany and France prospered, inflation here was running at Third World levels.… Unemployment had breached the one million barrier for the first time since the 1940s … the all-powerful unions held sway … and families were under financial siege. (17 March 2004)

Chuck in in IRA terrorism, three day weeks and streets full of unburied bodies (only slightly hidden by the rubbish from the overflowing dustbins) and you have the stock (and almost universally unchallenged) narrative that is always trotted out whenever the period before Britain was “saved” by St Maggie comes up in conversation.

Your own experiences and memories of a period that you lived through can be misleading of course, especially when you were an adolescent at the time. Rather than pickets with home-knitted gloves full of holes standing around braziers drinking Bovril my memories of the period really are more like that popular Athena poster of the female tennis player scratching her bum (i.e sunny and leisurely days– before you start.)

But such memories are probably not far off the mark: a few years ago the New Economics Foundation published a poll which suggested that the best year to be alive during the 20th century was 1976, the incomprehension with which this was greeted by those who reached maturity after Mrs T had “rescued” the country from “certain doom” was a delight to behold. Getting beyond the memories of the people who were actually around at the time the trouble with history is that there is always a popular memory of a period (often itself a memory of media stories) and also one subsequently constructed with the benefit of hindsight (and a whole lot more information) by historians

James Thomas, in an essay in Media, Culture and Society (to which I am heavily indebted in this piece) suggests that there were two overarching and all-conquering political narratives put into in play in the UK during the 20th century. The first – undertaken by post-war Labour governments- evoked the “devil’s decade” of the 1930s. Although this view was heavily promoted by amongst others (irony of ironies) Michael Foot during the 40s, the “hungry thirties” was not a mainstream view during the decade itself. Nevertheless the image of the time as one of constant Jarrow marches and “poverty and degradation stalking the land” continued to be used by Labour throughout the 40s the 50s and early 60s without much real challenge from the Tories. The early seventies however posed a problem . Inflation and unemployment brought on by the 1973 oil crisis did not fit well with the trumpeted idea of slow progress away from the hungry thirties. Critiques – precursors and later re-enforcers of Thatcherism- began to appear from the right, whilst some on the left began to smoulder with the gnawing thought that 1948 and subsequent Labour governments had been a missed opportunity to have “genuine” radical socialist programmes in the UK. By 1979 the Callaghan government was under attack from all sides, especially from a press that was more right-wing orientated than at any time in its previous history.

The basic media “story” of the late seventies is widely known by now: The public sector strike was a gift. The gravediggers strike in Liverpool allowed the hyperbolic image of “dead bodies putrifying in the streets” to become a daily Mail staple for weeks and each subsequent event was just bolted on to the narrative of Britain becoming an ungovernable, over-unionised state.

But in reality much of this was media hysteria. Union denials that they were preventing vital operations were ignored and met by ‘headlines such as: WHAT RIGHT HAVE THEY GOT TO PLAY GOD WITH MY LIFE?’ whilst Liverpool’ s chief medical officer Duncan Bolton wrote later that headlines in the Sun and Telegraph such as ‘Bodies May Be Buried at Sea’were in response to him actually saying that would be the possible solution – if the had dispute stretched on for months and months. (in fact there were more unburied bodies in Liverpool during a 1987 strike than in the strike of 1979, which, as few people now remember, was called off within days.)

The right wing press however continued to portray a country on the edge of meltdown – with supplies of essentials about to run out at any time. There were actually more days lost through strikes later in 1979 (under a Tory government) than under Labour. The school caretakers strike shut only 2.5% of schools, deliveries of petrol and medicines were not really affected and supermarkets remained well stocked. Strikes did increase throughout the seventies as compared to the previous decade but the proportion of working days lost during the decade was 0.2 percent (Yes you read that right.)

Derek Jameson, then editor of the staunchly Conservative Daily Express, recalled in his memoirs:

“We pulled every trick in the book We made it look like it was universal and eternal when it was in reality scattered, here and there, and no great problem’

Rather than the‘sick man of Europe’, the UK was not particularly strike prone by international standards, average for days lost below that of Germany, France and Japan, but above that of Italy, USA and Canada.”
Another myth about the seventies – that of high taxes- is also easily dismissed. Only 85,000 people in the entire country actually had to pay the 75% tax rate.Polls taken at the time show a large proportion of British people were very happy with where they lived.

But, as Thomas admits: “Popular images of the past matter more politically than unpopular academic analyses.” Which makes it even more curious why the Labour party’s s bigwigs have never attempted to challenge presentations of a period which largely rest on media invention. Labour were slaughtered at the time by a Tory press and a much more advanced Tory party media machine and seem to have reached the conclusion that the answer was to abandon the recent past entirely and forever.

Throughout the eighties and early nineties the press continued to play the same game: ‘Do we REALLY want to go back to all this?’ asked the Mail on 9 June 1987 (accompanied by a picture of the ubiquitous gloved strikers round the brazier) And during the 1992 election the same newspaper evoked: ‘a warning from 13 years ago’ when ‘the sick were turned away from hospital, streets were piled high with rubbish, and the dead could not be buried’ (9 April 1992).

As such mythmaking went on virtually unchallenged younger voters throughout the eighties and nineties swallowed the Tory media creation of seventies Britain whole. As Hugo Young has argued: ‘What is most remarkable about these sombre memories is how little has ever been done by modern Labour politicians to counteract them’.

So why have Labour never tried to challenge the media-created myths of the pre-Thatcher era? One reason is because Having been totally annihilated by the Tories on economic and social issues many took comfort in the (false) idea that they had won the battles against sexism and racism and turned their backs on the working-classes forever. When confronted by people arguing that the phrase “silly cow” is “violently misogynistic” it is hard for those of us of a certain age not to be reminded of a head in the sand (and usually insulated by family wealth) tendency which spent its time arguing that zebra crossings were racist whilst 3 million queued up for Maggie’s handouts. Such small “victories” were enough for some…

For New Labour 1994 became “year zero,” The 70s (and to a certain extent the sixties) were abandoned to Tory spin. Blair’s party defined itself more against the party’s own past than it did against the Tories. And the result is that after over a decade in power the party still appears to many people (and behaves) as if it is only caretaking what it itself feels to be an intrinsically conservative country.

The Tories themselves eventually learned the lesson that to forget history (and not to fight for your version of it) is to surrender it wholesale to your opponents. Some of the cost of “against all odds” should have been spent on correcting past media misrepresentations about “the winter of discontent”.

James Thomas’ “Bound in by history: The Winter of Discontent in British politics 1979-2004,” is in Culture, Media and Society 29; 263 (Subscription only I’m afraid.)