Majesty & Grace IX: The Reign of Elizabeth Windsor, 1963-78: Part 1 – Rebellious Britons.

Protest & Planning, 1963-68 – Youth, Vietnam & Grosvenor Square:

The 1960s were dramatic years in Britain. Demographic trends, especially the increase in the proportion of teenagers in the population, coincided with economic affluence and ideological experimentation to reconfigure social mores to a revolutionary extent. In 1964, under Harold Wilson, the Labour Party came into power, promising economic and social modernisation. Economically, the main problems of the decade arose from the devaluation of the currency in 1967 and the increase in industrial action. This was the result of deeper issues in the economy, such as the decline of the manufacturing industry to less than one-third of the workforce. By contrast, employment in the service sector rose to over half of all workers.

Young people were most affected by the changes of the 1960s. Overall, the period from the early 1950s to the mid-1970s was a long period of economic expansion and demographic growth which helped to fuel educational development in England. Education gained new prominence in government circles and student numbers soared. By 1966, seven new universities had opened: Sussex (pictured below), East Anglia, Warwick, Essex, York, Lancaster and Kent.

From a pamphlet on the History of Architecture.

By 1972 there were forty-five universities, compared with just seventeen in 1945. By 1966, seven new universities had opened, including the University of East Anglia and the University of Warwick at Canley near Coventry. More importantly, perhaps, students throughout the country were becoming increasingly radicalised as a response to growing hostility towards what they perceived as the political and social complacency of the older generation. They staged protests on a range of issues, from dictatorial university decision-making to apartheid in South Africa, and the continuance of the Vietnam War. But not all members of the ‘older generation’ were ‘complacent’ and many joined in the protests.

Above: A Quaker ‘advertisement’ in the Times, February 1968.

The Vietnam War not only angered the young of Britain but also placed immense strain on relations between the US and British governments. Although the protests against the Vietnam War were less violent than those in the United States, partly because of more moderate policing in Britain, there were major demonstrations all over the country; the one which took place in London’s Grosvenor Square, home to the US Embassy, in 1968, involved a hundred thousand protesters. Like the world of pop, ‘protest’ was essentially an American import. When counter-cultural poets put on an evening of readings at the Albert Hall in 1965, alongside a British contingent which included Adrian Mitchell and Christopher Logue, the ‘show’ was dominated by the Greenwich Village guru, Allen Ginsberg.

It was perhaps not surprising that the American influence was strongest in the anti-war movement. When the Vietnam Solidarity Committee organised three demonstrations outside the US embassy in London’s Grosvenor Square, the second of them particularly violent, they were copying the cause and the tactics used to much greater effect in the United States. The student sit-ins and occupations at Hornsey and Guildford Art Colleges and Warwick University were pale imitations of the serious unrest on US and French campuses. Hundreds of British students went over to Paris to join what they hoped would be a revolution in 1968, until de Gaulle, with the backing of an election victory, crushed it. This was on a scale like nothing seen in Britain, with nearly six hundred students arrested in fights with the police on a single day and ten million workers on strike across France.

Modernising Britain, 1963-68:

Andrew Marr has commented that the term ‘Modern Britain’ does not simply refer to the look and shape of the country – the motorways and mass car economy, the concrete, sometimes ‘brutalist’ architecture, the rock music and the high street chains. It also refers to the widespread belief in planning and management. It was a time of practical men, educated in grammar schools, sure of their intelligence. They rolled up their sleeves and took no-nonsense. They were determined to scrap the old and the fusty, whether that meant the huge Victorian railway network, the Edwardian, old Etonian establishment in Whitehall, terraced housing, censorship, prohibitions on homosexual behaviour and abortion.

The map (below) unveiled by British Transport Commission Chairman Sir Richard Beeching in March 1963 marked the symbolic end of the great railway age. Taking an axe, as he had, to great swathes of rural lines, Beeching tried to fend off the challenge posed by the growth of road transportation and left large areas of the countryside with no train services at all. The spider’s web of the track as shown in his report, The Reshaping of the British Railways, with black indicating those routes which were to be closed and red the lines that had been selected for survival (though not all with stopping services), was Beeching’s way of solving a problem which had been apparent for some time: the railways were simply not profitable. Ticket revenues and freight charges were hopelessly inadequate to defray the expenses of running a comprehensive network, particularly as successive governments had taken the way of political least resistance by acceding to demands for higher wages in the rail industry, while at the same time keeping a ceiling on fare increases.

There had been some rationalisation already. Around 1,300 miles had been closed by 1939 and after the nationalisation of the railways in 1948, the new British Transport Commission had pared down another 3,300 miles by 1962. But the salami-slicing of selected lines could not stem the losses, which had reached just over a hundred million in the same year. Many feared that the unspoken policy of combining unstoppable costs with an unmovably large network would lead to the death of the railways. Beeching, on secondment from ICI, at the time Britain’s largest manufacturer, stepped in with a solution that was as unpalatable as it was logical. His report provided a stark analysis that fifty per cent of Britain’s rail routes provided only two per cent of its revenues and that half of the 4,300 stations had annual receipts of less than ten thousand pounds. Some lines covered barely ten per cent of their running costs. To save the arterial rail routes, Beeching proposed ripping out the veins, ruthlessly shutting down railway tracks where there was no prospect of a profitable service, or where routes were duplicated. He earmarked for closure half of those stations still operating in 1962 and five thousand miles of track, about a third of the total remaining.

There were howls of protest and a few lines in Scotland, Wales and the southwest of England were reprieved. Some stretches were saved and turned into heritage railways, but most remained neglected and grassed over. The losses that Beeching had hoped to stem continued. It was estimated that the savings were only thirty million per year, compared with continuing costs of a hundred million p.a. by 1968. In the same year, a new Transport Act accepted that the railways would need to receive a subsidy for a further three years. But the British government, subsequently, never did rid itself of the need to subsidise the country’s rail system. Yet the rail system avoided complete collapse, and in terms of passenger numbers, prospered, so that journeys, which had declined from 965 million a year in 1962 to 835 million in 1965. The railways were also made more efficient with the closure of almost six thousand miles of track and two thousand stations after the Beeching report of 1963. Thereafter, they concentrated on fast intercity services and bulk-freight transportation. Beeching’s axe may have wounded the railways, but the blood-letting ultimately allowed them to survive, and even, in many areas, to thrive.

The Troubles in Ireland & Terrorism in Britain, 1964-1974:

In 1963 Terence O’Neill had become Prime Minister of Northern Ireland. His government’s policies of economic modernisation coincided with and encouraged a growing self-confidence among the Catholic middle classes, who were willing to accept the continuing participation of Ireland provided that they were given equal status within Northern Ireland. This confidence found expression in the civil rights of the mid-sixties, which campaigned in particular on issues of discrimination against the Catholic minority in housing and electoral gerrymandering. O’Neill’s Catholic-friendly rhetoric began to alienate the more conservative fringes of unionism, but it was the emergence of the radical People’s Democracy movement and its socialist anti-state wing that made the prime minister’s standing within his own party increasingly difficult.

The stump of Nelson’s Pillar, on Sackville Street (Now O’Connell Street).

When Nelson’s Pillar in the centre of Dublin was blown up by the Official IRA on 8th March 1966, the biggest controversy about it was why it had taken 157 years for the demolition to happen. Constructed circa 1808, the Protestant Ascendency class who had erected it had then celebrated. For many, the resentment had run deep. Almost fifty years after the Easter 1916 Rising in Dublin had blazed the trail towards Irish Independence and the establishment of the Republic, an English colonialist still towered over every other notable in Ireland’s capital city, they groused. The reason it had taken fifty years to remove the pillar was to be found within the capital itself, but the reason for it happening in 1966 had much to do with what had been taking place in Ireland’s partitioned northern city, Belfast. There, and in other towns in the North, Nationalist politics had moved onto the streets, where demonstrations and counter-demonstrations frequently led to riots.

For Nationalists in Ireland, both North and South, Northern Ireland was an artificial state kept in being by the control of the Protestant majority from 1922 onwards. By 1962 it was in disarray. A powerful civil rights movement arose on behalf of the nationalist (and usually Roman Catholic) minority. But, in practice, attempts to maintain inter-religious and intercultural harmony broke down.

The radicals may only have wanted a fully democratic society, but the majority of the province’s population increasingly saw this as a return to the age-old struggle for power between unionists and nationalists. While the last unionist government at Stormont from 1969 to 1972 were trying to create a consensus by granting most of the civil rights demands, the revival of the latent violent sectarianism made the province ungovernable.

The Westminster government deployed troops in the province in 1969 and moved into Belfast and Londonderry to preserve order. An alarming spate of bombing attacks on English cities signified that the Provisional IRA and Sinn Fein were taking the almost century-long struggle into a new and sinister phase. Then, in 1972, the most violent year of the Troubles, Westminster and Whitehall took over the government of Northern Ireland through Direct Rule. In that year, over four hundred people in the province lost their lives as a result of political violence.

A rioter throws a petrol bomb at British soldiers and police in Belfast in 1972.

The British government had only reluctantly become involved. Its subsequent policies were aimed at finding a political solution by creating a middle ground where the liberal wings of nationalism and unionism could find a consensus that would eventually make the militants of both sides redundant. This strategy proved unsuccessful, not least because of the nature and internal logic of direct rule. Because they were denied direct access to power, both sides could attack British policies as inappropriate and for failing to deliver their respective demands. At the same time, paramilitaries of both sides could drive the point home by violence that was, at least in part, justifiable in the eyes of their respective communities.

On the afternoon of May Day in 1971 John Evans, manager of the hugely popular Kensington boutique Biba, walked nervously downstairs into the store’s basement. There had been a series of outlandish phone calls warning about some kind of bomb, which to start with had simply been ignored by the assistant on the till. However, five hundred women and children had been evacuated by the time Evans pushed open the door of the stock room. There was an almighty bang, a flash and a flame and a billow of smoke. The Angry Brigade, mainland Britain’s own terror group, had struck again. They had chosen Biba, they said in their statement, because they saw boutiques as modern slave houses, for both their staff and customers. What they did not seem to realise was that Biba’s customers found it liberating, not oppressive. In some ways, the Biba bombing was the event that marked the end of the sixties dream. Two of the main forces behind the youth culture were at war with each other, the fantasy of the Angry Young People and that of the benign hippies as part of the consumer culture of cool clothes. The two subcultures, Biba and the Angries were two sides of the same coin of sixties youth culture.

The small group of university dropouts who made up the Angry Brigade would go to prison for ten years after a hundred and twenty-three attacks, but they are little remembered now. But they were the nearest Britain came to an anarchist threat, both anti-Communist and anti-Capitalist. That also made them anti-liberal. Western democracy, Stalinism, the media, the drug-taking hippy culture, modern architecture and even tourism were all targets for attack. More broadly and seriously, in the later sixties and early seventies, with significant minorities on the march from Brixton to Belfast, the liberal consensus in the United Kingdom seemed to be breaking down just as it had almost done in 1910-14. Beneath the veneer of public contentment, there were, in reality, divisive forces deeply entrenched in British society in the sixties. In the period of Harold Wilson’s first premiership (1964-70), a wide range of radical groups were exploding into revolt. The Angries were an extreme, violent manifestation of this revolt, but many young Britons were finding the values of consumerism and conformity unappealing in a world whose ecology was being disturbed and whose very existence was threatened by weapons of unimaginable horror.

Clearly, then, in the early seventies violence, even in the form of anti-State terrorism, had become a common theme on both sides of the Irish Sea. If there was one moment when the ‘troubles’ became unstoppable it was 30th January 1972, ‘Bloody Sunday’, when troops from the Parachute Regiment killed thirteen unarmed civilians in Londonderry. Albeit reluctantly, Edward Heath introduced internment without trial for suspected terrorists. He authorised the arrest and imprisonment in Long Kesh prison of 337 IRA suspects. In dawn raids, three thousand troops had found three-quarters of the people they were looking for, though even among these were many old or inactive former ‘official’ IRA members. Many of the active ‘Provo’ (Provisional IRA) leaders escaped south of the border. Protests came in from around the world. There was an immediate upsurge of violence, with twenty-one people killed in three days. Bombings and shooting simply increased in intensity. In the first eight weeks of 1972, forty-nine people were killed and more than 250 were seriously injured. Amid this already awful background, Bloody Sunday was an appalling day when Britain’s reputation around the world was damaged almost irrevocably. In Dublin, ministers reacted with fury and the British embassy was burned to the ground.

The tragic event in Londonderry made it easier for the ‘Provos’ to raise funds abroad, especially in the United States. This support emboldened the ‘Provos’, who hit back with a bomb attack on the Parachute Regiment’s Aldershot headquarters, killing seven people, none of them soldiers. The initial escalation of violence in ‘the province’ led to the imposition, by degrees, of direct rule by Whitehall. But all British political and administrative initiatives encountered perennial problems: one side or the other, and sometimes both, was unwilling to accept what was proposed. Ted Heath believed that he needed to persuade Dublin to drop its longstanding constitutional claim to the North, and, simultaneously, to persuade mainstream Unionists to work with moderate Nationalist politicians. His first Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, a new post made necessary by direct rule, William Whitelaw, met the Provisional IRA leaders, including Gerry Adams, for face-to-face talks, a desperate and risky gamble which, however, led nowhere. There was no compromise yet available that would bring about a ceasefire.

So, ignoring the Provos, the Sunningdale Agreement of 1973 proposed a power-sharing executive of six Unionists, four Nationalists (SDLP) and one non-sectarian Alliance Party member. It failed because the majority of Unionists would not accept an Irish dimension in the form of the proposed Council of Ireland, bringing together politicians from both sides of the border with powers over a limited range of issues. This was what nationalists demanded in return for Dublin renouncing its authority over Northern Ireland. Too many Unionists were implacably opposed to the deal, and the moderates were routed at the first 1974 election. While the British government’s approach became subtler with regard to unionist concerns, a formula that was acceptable to both sides remained elusive and was to do so for another quarter of a century. At the time, Heath concluded:

‘Ultimately it was the people of Northern Ireland who threw away the best chance of peace in the blood-stained history of the six counties’.

Nonetheless, the level of political violence subsided after 1972 within Northern Ireland itself. With hindsight, ‘Bloody Sunday’ had been an exceptional, tragic event that no one had anticipated, despite the presence of British troops on the streets of Belfast and Londonderry. In most subsequent years considerably more people died in road accidents. In July 1973, however, without warning, twenty bombs went off in Belfast, killing eleven people. Mainland Britain then became the key Provo target. In October 1974, five people were killed and sixty injured in attacks on Guildford pubs and in December, twenty-one (mostly young) people were killed in Birmingham by bombs placed in two pubs in the city centre.

The South Wales Coalfield Tragedy of Aberfan, October 1966:

Aberfan in the days immediately after the disaster, showing the extent of the spoil slip.

Later in the same year as the blowing up of Nelson’s Pillar in Dublin, on 21st October, the people of the British Isles were devastated by the tragedy that befell the Welsh mining village of Aberfan in the valley below the town of Merthyr Tydfil. Twenty adults and a hundred and sixty-six children were lost when a colliery slag tip, soaked by heavy rain, slipped down the hillside above the village junior school, Pantglas, smothering classes of eight and nine-year-olds and their teachers who were just beginning their lessons for the day. Funds were raised in churches and schools across Britain and Ireland for the relief effort being led by local miners. Still, though government ministers rushed to the scene, the Queen and Royal Family were advised to stay away. At the same time, bodies were still being recovered, and it was thought that her entourage might get in the way of the search and recovery operation.

The rescue of a young girl from the school; no survivors were found after 11:00 am

She delayed her visit until nine days after the disaster, a delay that was misinterpreted by some as being callous. However, when she did visit, she was visibly moved to tears and overcome with grief, so much so that she was welcomed into a miner’s house to recover her composure. Many still remember their emotions at this time, as children and parents, especially those who were the same age as the lost children of Aberfan – almost a whole year group had been wiped out. Those visiting the Welsh coalfield today can catch sight of the 194 crosses in the memorial garden from across the Taff valley.

As Prince of Wales, Charles revisited Aberfan on the fiftieth anniversary of the disaster in 2016.

In May 1997, the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh planted a tree at the Aberfan Memorial Garden. In February 2007, the Welsh Government announced a donation of £1.5 million to the Aberfan Memorial Charity and £500,000 to the Aberfan Education Charity, which represented an inflation-adjusted amount of the money taken to pay to secure the tip. The money for the memorial charity was used for the upkeep of the memorials to the disaster. In October 2016, on the fiftieth anniversary of the disaster, commemorative events took place in the garden and at the cemetery; the Prince of Wales represented the Queen, and government ministers were present to pay tribute. At the time of the anniversary Huw Edwards, the BBC News journalist and presenter, described the need to continue learning lessons from Aberfan:

“What we can do, however—in this week of the fiftieth anniversary—is try to focus the attention of many in Britain and beyond on the lessons of Aberfan, lessons which are still of profound relevance today. They touch on issues of public accountability, responsibility, competence and transparency.”

The dedication plaque at the Aberfan Memorial Garden

In January 2022, there was a call to find a permanent home for the artefacts salvaged from the disaster. These include a clock that had stopped when the tragedy occurred.

Harold’s Bright Young Things & The Technological Revolution:

According to Marr (2007-09), the country seemed to be suddenly full of bright men and women from lower-middle-class or upper-working-class families who were rising fast through business, universities and the professions. They were inspired by Harold Wilson’s talk of a scientific and technological revolution that would transform Britain. In October 1963 Wilson, then Labour leader of the opposition, predicted that Britain would be forged in the white heat of the technological revolution. In his speech at Labour’s 1963 conference, the most famous he ever made, Wilson pointed out that such a revolution would require wholesale social change:

‘The Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat of this revolution will be no place for restrictive practices or for outdated methods … those charged with the control of our affairs must be ready to think and speak in the language of our scientific age. … the formidable Soviet challenge in the education of scientists and technologists in Soviet industry (necessitates that) … we must use all the resources of democratic planning, all the latent and underdeveloped energies and skills of our people to ensure Britain’s standing in the world.’

Above: Grammar School Boy, Harold Wilson, Labour leader and PM

Dedicated Followers of Fashion:

In some ways, however, the new, swinging Wilsonian Britain was already out of date by the mid-sixties. In any case, his vision, though sounding ‘modern’ was essentially that of an old-fashioned civil servant. By 1965, Britain was already becoming a more feminised, sexualised, rebellious and consumer-based society. The political classes were cut off from much of this cultural undercurrent by their age and consequent social conservatism. They looked and sounded exactly what they were, people from a more formal, former time.

Barbara Hulanicki’s Kensington shop.

By 1971, sixty-four per cent of households had acquired a washing machine. This, in addition to the rapid and real growth in earnings of young manual workers, sustained over the past decade, had, by the mid-sixties, created a generation who had money to spend on leisure and luxury. The average British teenager was spending eight pounds a week on clothes, cosmetics, records and cigarettes. In London, their attitude was summed up by the fashion designer Mary Quant, whose shop, Bazaar, on King’s Road, provided clothes that allowed people to run, to jump, to leap, to retain their precious freedom.

Beatlemania had swept the British Isles in the early sixties, and by the middle of the decade the group had become a global phenomenon, playing all over Europe, as well as Australia, Japan and, of course, the USA. By 1967, returning from a trip to India, they recorded their influential album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, with its famous art cover. Before breaking up in the early 1970s, they gave up touring and concentrated on recording a string of albums at their Abbey Road studio in London, including Abbey Road, The Double White Album and Let it Be.

Meanwhile, a more working-class sub-culture emerged, particularly in London and the South-East, as rival gangs, successors to the Teddy Boys of the late fifties, of Mods and Rockers followed hard rock bands like The Who and The Rolling Stones. In the summer of 1964, they rode their mopeds and motorbikes from the London suburbs down to Brighton, where they met up on the beach and staged fights with each other. Pete Townsend and Roger Daltry documented the social history of the earlier period in their early seventies rock album and film, Quadrophenia.

‘The Who’ began life as a ‘Mod’ band in the mid-sixties.
By the early 1970s, their hairstyles, clothes and music had changed dramatically.
Over 250,000 went to the Rolling Stones’ open-air concert in the early seventies.
Education – The Binary Divide & Comprehensivisation:

By 1965, the post-war division of children, effectively, into potential intellectuals, technical workers and ‘drones’ – gold, silver and lead – was thoroughly discredited. The fee-paying independent and ‘public’ schools still thrived, with around five per cent of the country’s children ‘creamed off’ through their exclusive portals. For the other ninety-five per cent, ever since 1944, state schooling was meant to be divided into three types of schools. In practice, however, this became a binary divide between grammar schools, taking roughly a quarter, offering traditional academic teaching, and the secondary modern schools, taking the remaining three-quarters of state-educated children, offering a technical and/or vocational curriculum. The grandest of the grammar schools were the 179 ‘direct grant’ schools, such as those in the King Edward’s Foundation in Birmingham, which J.R.R. Tolkien had attended, and the Manchester Grammar School. They were controlled independently of both central and local government, and their brighter children would be expected to go to the ‘better’ universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, from where they would enter the professions.

Alongside the direct grant schools, also traditionalist in ethos but ‘maintained’ by the local authorities, were some 1,500 ordinary grammar schools. The division was made on the basis of the selective state examination known as the ‘eleven plus’ after the age of the children who sat it. The children who ‘failed’ this examination were effectively condemned as ‘failures’ to attend what were effectively second-rate schools, often in buildings which reflected their lower status. As one writer observed in 1965, ‘modern’ had become a curious euphemism for ‘less clever.’ Some of these schools were truly dreadful, sparsely staffed, crowded into unsuitable buildings and submitting no pupils for outside examinations before most were released for work at fifteen. At A Level, in 1964, the secondary moderns, with around seventy-two per cent of Britain’s children, had 318 candidates. The public schools, with five per cent, had 9,838. Many of those who were rejected at the eleven plus and sent to secondary moderns never got over the sense of rejection. The IQ tests were shown not to be nearly as reliable as first thought. Substantial minorities, up to sixty thousand children a year, were at the ‘wrong’ school and many were being transferred later, up or down.

In addition, the selective system was divisive of friendships, families and communities. Different education authorities had widely different proportions of grammar school and secondary modern places; division by geography, not even by examination. A big expansion of teachers and buildings was needed to deal with the post-war baby boom children who were now reaching secondary school. Desperately looking for money, education authorities snatched at the savings a simpler comprehensive system, such as that pioneered and developed in Coventry in the fifties, might produce. Socialists who had wanted greater equality, among whom Education Secretary Tony Crosland had long been prominent, were against the eleven-plus on ideological grounds. But many articulate middle-class parents who would never have called themselves socialists were equally against it because their children had failed to get grammar school places.

With all these pressures, education authorities had begun to move towards a one-school-for-all or comprehensive system during the Conservative years, Tory Councils as well as Labour ones. In 1964 the head of Whitley Abbey School in Coventry concluded that the city council now needed to choose between returning to the grammar and secondary modern school system or going fully comprehensive. Therefore, in the early 1960s at least, grammar schools and selection were still at the heart of Coventry’s so-called comprehensive revolution. There were also comprehensives elsewhere on the Swedish model, and they were much admired for their huge scale, airy architecture and apparent modernity. Crosland hastened the demise of the grammar schools by requesting local authorities to go comprehensive. He did not say how many comprehensives must be opened nor how many grammar schools should be closed, but by making government money for new school buildings conditional on going comprehensive, the change was greatly accelerated.

An early comprehensive school for 11-18-year-olds of differing abilities, taught together.
High-rise homes, Class & Communities:

New housing schemes, including estates and high-rise blocks of flats, plus the new town experiments, undermined the traditional urban working-class environments, robbing them of their intrinsic collective identities. The extended kinship network of the traditional prewar working-class neighbourhoods and communities was replaced by the nuclear family life on the new estates. Rehousing, property speculation, the rise of the consumer society, market forces, urban planning and legislation, all play their role in the further regeneration of working-class culture. In 1972, Phil Cohen, a University of Birmingham sociologist, described these processes in a Working Paper:

The first effect of the high density, high-rise schemes was to destroy the function of the street, the local pub, the corner shop… Instead there was only the privatised space of the family unit, stacked one on top of another, in total isolation, juxtaposed with the totally public space which surrounded it, and which lacked any of the informal social controls generated by the neighbourhood.

The streets which serviced the new estates became thoroughfares, their users ’pedestrians’, and by analogy so many bits of human traffic… The people who had to live in them weren’t fooled. As one put it – they might have hot running water and central heating, but to him they were still prisons in the sky… The isolated family unit could no longer call on the resources of wider kinship networks, or the neighbourhood, and the family itself became the sole focus of solidarity…

The working class family was… not only isolated from the outside but undermined from within. There is no better example of what we are talking about than the so-called ’household mother’. The street or turning was no longer available as a safe play space, under neighbourly supervision. Mum, or Auntie, was no longer just round the corner to look after the kids for the odd morning. Instead, the task of keeping an eye on the kids fell exclusively to the young wife, and the only safe play space was the ’safety of the home’.

However, away from the high-rise blocks, the stubborn continuities of working-class life and culture survived. Nevertheless, the theme of the community became a matter of widespread and fundamental concern in the period. The question emerged as to whether, as the conditions and patterns of social life for working people changed, and as what surplus money there about began to pour into the new consumer goods on offer, people might not only be uprooted from a life they knew, and had made themselves, to another made partly for them by others. This might also involve a shift from the working-class values of solidarity, neighbourliness and collectivism, to those of individualism, competition and privatisation. 

Adding Colour to Real Life – From the World Cup on TV to Roads:

The BBC archive material from the period records how television played a role in this transition to more middle-class attitudes:

Nowadays, there’s a tremendous change, an amazing change, in fact, in just a few years. People have got television. They stay at home to watch it – husbands and wives. If they do come in at the weekend they’re playing bingo. They’ve now got a big queue for the one-armed bandit as well. They do have a lot more money, but what they’re losing is togetherness.

But TV did at least bring families together to watch major events and light entertainment. Many still remember the World Cup of 1966 as the most colourful event of the era, but although a colour cine film recording of the match was made and released later, people watched it live on TV in black and white. Only the hundred thousand at Wembley that day saw the red shirts of the England team raise the Jules Rimet trophy after the match.

For many in Britain, not just England, the event which marked the high point in popular culture was Alf Ramsey’s team’s victory over West Germany. The tournament was held in England for the first time, and the team, built around Bobby Charlton, the key Manchester United midfielder who, along with Nobby Stiles, had survived the Munich air crash earlier in the decade, and Bobby Moore, the captain, from West Ham United, who also had two skilful forwards in the team in Martin Peters and striker Geoff Hurst. Most people remember (in colour, of course) Geoff Hurst’s two extra-time goals and Kenneth Wolstenholme’s commentary because they have watched them replayed so many times since. After the match, however, people dressed up in a bizarre, impromptu mixture of colourful sixties fashion and patriotic bunting and came out to celebrate with family, friends and neighbours just as if it were the end of the war again. The 1970 World Cup, from Mexico, was in colour on TV.

By the mid-sixties, there were also far more brightly coloured cars on the roads, most notably the Austin Mini, but much of the traffic was still the boxy black, cream or toffee-coloured traffic of the fifties. By 1967 motorways totalled 525 miles in length, at a cost of considerable damage to the environment. Bridges were built over the Forth and Severn between 1964 and 1966. The development of new industries and the growth of the east coast ports necessitated a considerable programme of trunk road improvement. This continued into the mid-seventies at a time when economic stringency was forcing the curtailment of other road-building schemes. East Anglia’s new roads were being given priority treatment for the first time. Most of the A12, the London-Ipswich road, was made into a dual carriageway. The A45, the artery linking Ipswich and Felixstowe with the Midlands and the major motorways, had been considerably improved. Stowmarket, Bury St Edmunds and Newmarket had been bypassed. By the end of the decade, the A11/M11 London-Norwich road was completed, bringing to an end the isolation of northern and central Suffolk. Plans to triple the 660 miles of motorway in use by 1970 were also frustrated by a combination of the resulting economic recession, leading to cutbacks in public expenditure, and environmental protest.

The continuing working-class prosperity of the Midlands was based on the last fat years of the manufacture of cars, as well as other goods. But until the mid-fifties, Coventry’s industrial over-specialisation had gone relatively unnoticed, except by a few economists writing in The Times and The Financial Times. This in turn was compounded by the fact that within the British motor industry as a whole Coventry was steadily becoming of less importance as a source of output and coupled with relatively low profits and investment levels, the economy’s stock was slowly ossifying and becoming increasingly inflexible. Yet other car centres, notably Birmingham, Cowley, Dagenham and Luton were subjected to similar pressures but retained the bulk of their manufacturing capacity to the end of the seventies. It is no coincidence that most of what remained of the British motor industry was centred in towns which were dominated by one single large manufacturing plant.

The problem peculiar to Coventry was not only that the local economy became overdependent on the motor industry but that virtually all the automotive firms were, by the 1960s, ill-suited because of their size to survive the increasing competitiveness of the international market. A major reason for Coventry’s long boom was the multiplicity of firms in the motor industry, but in the seventies, this became the major cause of its decline. The only viable motor car establishment to survive this deep recession was Jaguar. The incentives to embark on a vast restructuring of industry, whether national or local, were simply not there, especially since the policy of successive governments was to divert industry away from the new industrial areas of the interwar period in favour of Britain’s depressed areas, or development areas, as they had been redesignated in the immediate postwar period.

Britain as the Sick Man of Europe – The Economy and EEC Membership:

Edward Heath campaigning, unsuccessfully, in 1966.

In the early 1970s, inflation began to rise significantly, especially after Edward Heath’s Conservative government recklessly expanded the money supply, a misguided version of Keynesianism. All the predictions of Keynesian economists were overturned as rising inflation was accompanied by rising unemployment. At first, this was once again confined to the older industrial areas of the northeast, Scotland and South Wales. The rise of more militant nationalisms in the two Celtic nations was now as much concerned with the closure of collieries and factories, and the laying off of labour, as with cultural issues. By 1973, it was clear that the economic problems of Britain were having far more general consequences. The nation’s capacity to generate wealth, along with its share of world trade and productivity, were all in serious, if not terminal, decline. Britain was seen as ‘the sick man of Europe.’

By 1970, after a decade during which Britain had grown much more slowly than the six original members of the Common Market, Heath was in some ways in a weaker position than Macmillan had been. On the other hand, he also had some advantages. He was trusted as a serious negotiator. Britain’s very weakness persuaded Paris that this time, les rosbifs were genuinely determined to join. Pompidou also thought the time was right and he wanted to get out of De Gaulle’s shadow. But France, like the rest of the Community, had for years been struggling to understand what Britain really wanted. This had been particularly difficult in the first seven Wilson years when the British left had been riven by the issue. Heath had only promised to negotiate, however, not to join. But his enthusiasm was in stark contrast to Wilson’s blowing hot and cold. Yet opinion polls suggested that Heath’s grand vision was alien to most British people.

With Heath in power, after over eighteen months of haggling in London, Paris and Brussels, a deal was thrashed out. It infuriated Britain’s fishermen, who would lose control over most of their traditional grounds to open European competition, particularly from French and Spanish trawlers. It was the second-best deal on the budget, later reopened by Margaret Thatcher. Above all, it left intact the original Common Market designed for the convenience of French farmers and Brussels-based bureaucrats, not for Britain. Vast slews of European law had to be swallowed whole, much of it objectionable to the British negotiators. There were some marginal concessions for Commonwealth farmers and producers, but these were granted in return for the bad deal on the budget. The reality was that the negotiators were directed to get a deal at almost any price. At a press conference at the Élysée Palace in 1971, Heath and Pompidou, after a long private session of talks between the two of them, revealed to general surprise that so far as France was concerned, Britain could now join the Community. Heath was particularly delighted to have triumphed over the press, who had expected another ‘Non.’

A national debate and vote in Parliament followed about the terms of entry, but although he had publicly supported British entry before negotiations began, Wilson now began sniping at Heath’s deal. Jim Callaghan, his potential successor, was already openly campaigning against the deal, partly on the grounds that the EEC threatened the language of Chaucer, Shakespeare and Dickens. The Labour left, too, was in full cry: a special Labour Conference in July 1971 voted by a majority of five to one against membership, and Labour MPs were also hostile by a majority of two to one. Wilson announced that he was now opposed to membership on the Heath terms. After the long and tortuous journey to reach this point, the pro-Europeans were disgusted: they defied the party whip in the Commons and voted with the Conservatives. They were led by Roy Jenkins. The left, led by Barbara Castle, Michael Foot and Tony Benn were livid with the sixty-nine rebels. For both sides, this was a matter of principle that would continue to divide the party until the present day. On the night of the vote in the Commons, there were screaming matches in the lobbies between the pro- and anti-marketeers among Labour MPs. After winning his Commons vote on British membership of the Community, Heath returned to Downing Street to play Bach on the piano in a mood of restrained triumphalism.

Tony Benn began to argue that on a decision of such importance the people should vote in a referendum, since a democratic country that denied its people the right to choose its future would lose all respect. To begin with, Benn had little support for this radical thought, since most on the Left despised referenda as fascist devices, subject to manipulation in a parliamentary democracy. Pro-Europeans also feared that this was a ploy to commit Labour to pull out. Harold Wilson had committed himself publicly against a referendum, but he came to realise that opposing Heath’s deal but promising to renegotiate, offering a referendum, could be the way out. The promise would also give him some political high ground. He would trust the people even if the people were, according to the polls, already fairly bored and hostile. When Pompidou suddenly announced that France would hold its own referendum on British entry, Wilson snatched at the Benn plan. It was an important moment because a referendum would make the attitude of the whole country clear, at least for a generation. Referenda also became devices used again by politicians faced with difficult constitutional choices.

Wilson’s Renegotiation & Referendum, 1974-75:

After winning the two elections of 1974, Wilson carried out his promised renegotiation of Britain’s terms of entry to the EEC and then put the result to in the Benn-inspired referendum of 1975. The renegotiation was largely a sham, but the referendum was a rare political triumph for Wilson after the elections and before his retirement in 1976. On the continent, the renegotiation was understood to be more for Wilson’s benefit than anything else. Helmut Schmidt, the new German Chancellor, who travelled to London to help charm and calm the Labour conference, regarded it as a successful cosmetic operation. Wilson needed to persuade people he was putting a different deal to the country than the one Heath had negotiated. He was able to do this, but when the referendum campaign actually began, Wilson’s old evasiveness returned and he mumbled vaguely his support, rather than actively or enthusiastically making the European case. To preserve longer-term party unity, he allowed anti-Brussels cabinet ministers to speak from the ‘No’ platform and Barbara Castle, Tony Benn, Peter Shore and Michael Foot were among those who took up this offer.

The ‘No’ campaign was all about prices, not about ‘sovereignty’. Top: Barbara Castle leading one of many cunning ‘stunts’.

They were joined on the platform by Enoch Powell, Rev. Ian Paisley of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the Scottish Nationalists and others. But the ‘Yes’ campaign included most of the Labour cabinet, with Roy Jenkins leading the way, plus most of the Heath team and the popular Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe. It seemed to many people a fight between wild-eyed ranters on the one hand and sound chaps on the other. More important, perhaps, was the bias of business and the press. A Confederation of British Industry (CBI) survey of company chairmen found that out of 419 interviewed, just four were in favour of leaving the Community. Almost all the newspapers were in favour of staying in, including the Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph, and Daily Express. So was every Anglican bishop. The Yes campaign, led by Britain in Europe outspent the No camp by more than ten to one. In this grossly unequal struggle, both sides used scare stories. Yes warned of huge job losses if the country left the Community. The No camp warned of huge rises in food prices.

There were meetings with several thousand participants, night after night around the country, and the spectacle of politicians who usually attacked each other sitting down together and agreeing on something was a tonic to audiences. Television arguments were good, especially those between Jenkins and Benn. On the Labour side, there were awkward moments when the rhetoric got too fierce, and Wilson had to intervene to rebuke warring ministers. In the end, in answer to the simple question, Do you think that the United Kingdom should stay in the European Economic Community (The Common Market)? Just over sixty-eight per cent, around seventeen million people voted Yes and nearly thirty-three per cent (8.5 million) voted No. Only Shetland and the Western Isles of Scotland voted No.

Decimalisation was seen as a huge change to daily life, unwelcome to many older people. Though the original decision had been taken by the first Wilson government in 1965, the disappearance in 1971 of a coinage going back to ‘Anglo-Saxon’ times was widely blamed on Heath as part of the move into Europe. Away flew the beloved florins and half-crowns, ha’pennies, farthings, threepenny and sixpenny bits and out went, to the relief of many schoolchildren, the intricate triple-column maths of pounds, shillings and pence. In came the more rational decimal currency. But ‘imperial’ measures remained for milk and beer, and miles were retained in preference to kilometres. By the 1970s, the behaviour of the cliques who ran the country had been replaced as the chief motivation for political cynicism by a more general sense of alienation from ‘the State’ and ‘the Establishment.’ For many older Britons, these were years when change spun out of control. Much of the loathing of Heath on the right of politics came from British membership of the Common Market after 1973, which seemed to many to be the emblem of the ‘rage’ for new, bigger systems to replace the traditional ones. Writing in his diary in 1975, Tony Benn recorded his reaction to the possibility of a Europe-wide passport, revealing how much the left’s instincts could chime with those of the right-wing opponents of European change:

‘That really hit me in the guts … Like metrication and decimalisation, this really strikes at our national identity.’

Reading it in retrospect, the comment seems almost ironic, but at the time these symbols were emblematic of their ‘sovereignty’ for many Britons, whether they were on the left or right wing. More than forty years later, when Britain was considering leaving what by then had become the European Union, the biggest question both about Heath’s triumph in engineering Britain’s entry and then about Labour’s referendum is whether the British were told the full story about what this would mean and whether they truly understood the supranational organisation they were signing up to. Ever since that first referendum, many of those among the 8.5 million who voted against, and younger people who share their views, have suggested that Heath and Jenkins and the rest lied to the country, at least by omission. Had it been properly explained that Europe’s law and institutions would sit above the Westminster Parliament, it was argued, they would never have agreed. The Britain in Europe campaigners can point to speeches and leaflets which directly mention the loss of sovereignty. One of the latter read:

‘Forty million people died in two European wars this century. Better lose a little national sovereignty than a son or daughter.’

Expanding the membership of the EC, 1952-93.

Yet both in Parliament and in the referendum campaign, the full consequences for national independence were mumbled, and not spoken clearly enough. Geoffrey Howe, as he then was, who drafted Heath’s European Communities Bill, later admitted that it could have been more explicit about lost sovereignty. Heath talked directly about the ever-closer union of the peoples of Europe but was never precise about the effect on British law, as compared to Lord Denning who said the European treaty could be compared to…

‘… an incoming tide. It flows into the estuaries and and rivers. It cannot be held back.’

Hugo Young, the journalist and historian who studied the campaign in great detail wrote:

I traced no major document or speech that said in plain terms that national sovereignty would be lost, still less one that categorically promoted the European Community for its single most striking characteristic: that it was an institution positively designed to curb the full independence of the nation-state.

There were, of course, explicit warnings given by the No campaigners among the more populist arguments about food prices. They came, above all, from Enoch Powell, Michael Foot and Toy Benn. Foot wrote in The Times that the British parliamentary system had been made farcical and unworkable. Future historians, he said, would be amazed…

that the British people were urged at such a time to tamper irreparably with their most most precious institution; to see it circumscribed and contorted and elbowed off the centre of the stage.

So it was not true that people were not told. The truth revealed by opinion polls is that sovereignty as an issue did not concern the public nearly as much as jobs and food prices. By later standards, the position of Parliament was not taken terribly seriously in public debates. As Andrew Marr put it in his 2009 book, A History of Modern Britain:

It may be that sovereignty is always of absorbing interest to a minority – the more history-minded, politically-aware – and of less interest to the rest, except when a loss of sovereignty directly affects daily life and produces resented laws. In the seventies, Britain’s political class was not highly respected, and Europe seemed to offer a glossier, richer future. Though the pro-Community majority in business and politics did not strive to ram home the huge implications of membership, they did not deceitfully hide the political nature of what was happening, either. It was just that, when the referendum was held, people cared less. The argument would return, screaming … to be heard.

Andrew Marr (2007-9), op.cit., p.351.

‘The Booze Cruise’: A popular home-grown cartoon view of the British attitude to Europe in the late seventies & eighties.

The ‘Barber Boom,’ Inflation & Industrial Relations, 1971-73:

If Heath is associated with a single action, it is British entry into ‘Europe,’ but throughout his time in office, it was the economy which remained the biggest issue facing his government. The country was spending too much on new consumer goods and not nearly enough on modernised and more efficient factories and businesses. British productivity was still pathetically low compared with the United States or Europe, never mind Japan. Prices were rising by seven per cent and wage earnings by double that. The short-lived economic boom under the Conservative Heath government and Anthony Barber’s Chancellorship, greatly benefited the local motor industry, temporarily reversing the stall in population growth in manufacturing areas. But Britain’s falling competitiveness was making it difficult, in the early seventies, for governments to maintain high employment by intervening in the economy.

This was still the old, post-1945 world of fixed exchange rates which meant that the Heath government, just like those of Attlee and Wilson, faced a sterling crisis and perhaps another devaluation. Since 1945 successive governments had followed the tenets of Keynesian economics, borrowing in order to create jobs if unemployment approached a figure deemed as unacceptable (in the 1970s this was about six hundred thousand). During the decade, this became increasingly difficult to do as Edward Heath’s government (1970-74) struggled to follow such policies in the face of a global recession associated with the tripling of oil prices in 1973, by OPEC (the international cartel of oil producers). This caused an immediate recession and fuelled international inflation. Faced with declining living standards, the unions replied with collective industrial power. Strikes mounted up, most acutely in the coalfields.

The unions, identified by Heath as his first challenge, had just seen off Wilson and Barbara Castle. Heath had decided he would need to face down at least one major public sector strike, as well as remove some of the benefits that he thought encouraged strikes. Britain not only had heavy levels of unionisation through all the key industries but also, by modern standards, an incredible number of different unions, more than six hundred altogether. Added to this, leaders of large unions had only a wobbly hold on what actually happened on the ‘shop floor’ in factories. It was a time of politicised militancy there, well caught by the folk-rock band the Strawbs, who reached number two in the singles chart with their mock-anthem Part of the Union. Its lyrics included:

“Oh, you don’t get me I’m part of the union, till the day I die…

“As a union man I’m wise to the lies of the company spies…

“With a hell of a shout, it’s ‘out brothers, out!’ …

” And I always get my way, if I strike for higher pay…

“So, though I’m a working man, I can ruin the government’s plan … ”

Almost immediately after becoming PM, Heath faced a dock strike, followed by a big pay settlement for local authority dustmen, then a power workers’ go-slow which led to power cuts. Then the postal workers struck. Douglas Hurd, then Heath’s political secretary, recorded in his diary his increasing frustration:

‘A bad day. It is clear that all the weeks of planning in the civil service have totally failed to cope with what is happening in the electricity dispute: and all the pressures are to surrender’.

Later, Hurd confronted Heath in his dressing gown to warn him that the government response was moving too slowly, far behind events. At that stage, things in the car industry were so bad that Henry Ford III warned Heath that his company was thinking of pulling out of Britain altogether. Yet Heath’s Industrial Relations Bill of 1971 was meant to be balanced, giving new rights to trade unionists while at the same time trying to make deals with employers legally binding and enforceable through a new system of industrial courts. This was similar to the package offered by the Wilson government. There were also tax reforms, meant to increase investment, a deal with ‘business’ on keeping price increases to five per cent and even some limited privatisation, with the travel agents Thomas Cook, then state-owned, being sold off along with some breweries.

But the Tory messages and measures were confusing. Cuts in some personal taxes encouraged spending and therefore inflation. With European membership looming, Anthony Barber, Heath’s Chancellor, was dashing for growth, which meant further tax cuts and higher government spending and borrowing. Lending limits were removed for high street banks, resulting in a growth in lending from twelve per cent per year in 1971 to forty-three per cent per year in 1973. This obviously further fuelled inflation, particularly in the housing market. This led to a huge expansion of credit and capital sunk into bricks and mortar that became a feature of modern Britain.

At the same time, one of the historic constraints on successive post-war British governments was removed by President Nixon in the summer of 1971 when he suspended the convertibility of the dollar for gold and allowed exchange rates to ‘float.’ He was faced with the continuing high costs of the war in Vietnam, combined with rising commodity prices. The effect on Britain was that the government and the Bank of England no longer had to be quite so careful about maintaining sterling reserves. But it opened up fresh questions, such as how far down sterling could go and how industrialists could expect to plan ahead. Heath’s instincts on state control were also tested when the most valuable parts of Rolls-Royce faced bankruptcy over the cost of developing new aircraft engines. He quickly nationalised the company, saving eighty thousand jobs and allowing it to regroup and survive, to the relief of the defence industry. Rolls-Royce did revive, returning to the private sector, providing one example of how nationalisation could work in future.

A campaign poster during the 1972 miners’ dispute.

In 1972, in their first strike for a generation, the miners fought a dramatic battle, putting the country on a three-day week and unhinging the Heath government. This time we’ll win, they said. No one in South Wales needed to ask what last time they had in mind, especially those who still remembered the dark days of the twenties. The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) submitted a demand for a forty-five per cent wage increase to the National Coal Board (NCB). When it was rejected, a national miners’ strike was called in February 1972. The Heath government experienced the full extent of the miners’ ability to disrupt national production and energy supplies, despite the contraction of the industry since the 1950s. The government was wholly unprepared, with modest coal stocks, and was surprised by the striking miners’ discipline and aggression.

Arthur Scargill, then a young, unknown militant and former Communist, organised fifteen thousand of his comrades from across South Yorkshire in a mass picket of the Saltley coke depot, on which Birmingham depended for much of its fuel. Scargill (below centre), a rousing speaker and highly ambitious union activist, later described the confrontation with West Midlands police as “the greatest day of my life.” However, the events of his greatest day represented, for the PM:

‘… the most vivid, direct and terrifying challenge to the rule of law that I could ever recall emerging from within our own country. … We were facing civil disorder on a massive scale.’

The Welsh miners picketed outside the Houses of Parliament during the 1972 Strike, led by their General Secretary Dai Francis (with spectacles).

Heath blamed the police for being too soft. It was clear to him that the intention was to bring down the elected government but he decided that he could not counter-attack immediately. Confronted with the prospect of the country becoming ungovernable or having to use the armed forces to restore order which public opinion would never have tolerated, Heath turned to a judge Lord Wilberforce, for an independent inquiry into miners’ wages. Wilberforce reported that they should get at least twenty per cent, which was fifty per cent more than the average increase. The NUM settled for that, plus extra benefits, in one of the most clear-cut and overwhelming victories over a government of any British trade union to date. Their strategy and tactics were wholly successful. Scargill was quickly promoted to agent, then president of the Yorkshire miners.

A boy stands outside his school, which closed because of a lack of fuel during the miners’ strike of 1972.
The Oil Price Bust, the Coal Dispute & the Three-Day Week, 1973-74:

Obstructionist trade unions were a favourite target of many, particularly after the coal dispute, which had led to a series of power cuts throughout the country and a three-day working week. Attacks on trade union power were becoming more popular owing to a growing perception that the miners in particular had become too powerful and disruptive, holding the country for ransom. Heath and his ministers knew that they would have to go directly to the country with an appeal about who was running it, but before that, they tried a final round of negotiation to reach a compromise. Triggered by the prospect of unemployment reaching a million, there now followed the famous U-turn which so marred Heath’s reputation. It went by the name of ‘tripartism’, a three-way national agreement on wages and prices, investments and benefits, between the government, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and the Trades Union Congress (TUC). The Industry Act of 1972 gave the government unprecedented powers of intervention, which Tony Benn called ‘spadework for socialism’. Heath had leaned so far to try to win the unions over that he was behaving like a Wilsonian socialist.

The unions, having defeated Wilson and Castle, were more self-confident than ever before or since. Many industrial workers, living in still-bleak towns far away from the fashionable big cities, did seem underpaid and left behind. The miners, certainly, were badly paid in these areas in particular. Heath argued that he was forced to accept and apply consensual policies because in the seventies any alternative set of policies, the squeeze of mass unemployment which arrived in the Thatcher era, would simply not have been accepted by the country as a whole. Besides, the economic problems the government and the country at large faced were not primarily the result of high wage claims. Management incompetence or short-termism, leading to an abdication of responsibility and the failure to restructure factories and industries, was seen as a primary cause of economic stagnation. This, as seen in the case of manufacturing in Coventry, was an argument which had some local evidence to support it, although unions at a local, shop-floor level were sometimes equally short-sighted in some instances.

What finally finished off the Heath government was the short war between Israel and Egypt in October 1973, the Yom Kippur War. Israel’s swift and decisive victory was a humiliation for the Arab world and it struck back, using oil as its weapon. OPEC, the organisation of oil-producing countries dominated by the Saudis, had seen the price of oil rising on world markets for some time. They decided to cut oil supplies to the West each month until Israel handed back its territorial gains and allowed the Palestinians their own state. There would be a total embargo on Israel’s most passionate supporters, the United States and the Netherlands. And those countries that were allowed oil would be made to pay more for it. In fact, prices rose fourfold. It was a global economic shock, pumping further inflation into the industrialised world, but in Britain, it arrived with added force. The miners put in yet another huge pay claim, which would have added twice as much again to many pay packets. Despite an appeal from the moderate NUM President, Joe Gormley, the NUM Executive rejected a thirteen per cent pay increase and voted to ballot for another national strike.

The country could survive high oil prices, even shortages, for a time, but these were the days before Brent Crude from the North Sea was being produced commercially. The same was true of natural gas. But Britain could not manage both the oil shock and a national coal strike at the same time. Barber, the Chancellor, called this the greatest economic crisis since the war. It certainly compared to that of 1947. Again, coal stocks had not been built up in preparation, so a whole series of panic measures had to be introduced. Plans were made for petrol rationing and coupons were printed and distributed. The national speed limit was cut by twenty miles per hour to fifty mph. Then in January 1974 came the announcement of a three-day working week. Ministers solemnly urged citizens to share baths and brush their teeth in the dark. Television broadcasting ended at 10.30 p.m. each evening. It was an embarrassing time in many ways, with people having to find other things to do in the dark or by candlelight, yet it also gave millions an enjoyable frisson, the feeling of taking a holiday from everyday routines. The writer Robert Elms recalled:

…this proud nation had been reduced to a shabby shambles, somewhere between a strife-torn South American dictatorship and a gloomy Soviet satellite… a banana republic with a banana shortage … The reality of course is that almost everybody loved it. They took to the three-day week with glee. They took terrific liberties.

This time Heath and his ministers struggled to find a solution to the miners’ demands, though the climate was hardly helped when Mick McGahey, the legendary Communist NUM leader, asked by Heath what he really wanted, answered ‘to bring down the government.’ When the miners voted, eighty-one per cent were for striking, including those in some of the traditionally most moderate coalfield areas. In February 1974, Heath asked the Queen to dissolve Parliament and went to the country on the election platform he had prepared two years earlier: ‘Who governs?’ The country’s answer, perhaps taking the question more literally than Heath had hoped was ‘Not you, mate!’ Meanwhile, Harold Wilson had expected the Tories to win again. A year earlier he had prepared the Opposition’s answer to the questions of union power and inflation which became known as the Social Contract. Observers saw it as a recipe for inflation which also offered the TUC a privileged place at the table in return for very little.

However, Wilson was somehow able to emerge as the calm bringer of reason and order in the election campaign, whereas Heath was hit by a slew of bad economic figures. Then Enoch Powell, Heath’s old nemesis, stepped back into the limelight to announce that he was leaving the Conservatives over their failure to offer the electorate a referendum on Europe. He, therefore, called on voters to vote Labour. This helped to produce a late surge for Wilson, as well as for the Liberals, led by the popular Jeremy Thorpe. Though Labour won the most seats by the slenderest of margins, 301 to the Tories’ 297 (the Liberals had fourteen MPs), no party had an overall majority, so Heath hung on, hoping to do a deal with Thorpe. But he eventually had to concede defeat, and Harold returned to the Palace to kiss hands with Queen Elizabeth for the third time. As Andrew Marr put it:

So Mick McGahey and friends had brought down the Heath government, with a little help from the oil-toting Saudi Royal Family, the Liberals and Enoch Powell. A more bizarre coalition of interests is difficult to imagine.

Andrew Marr (2007), A History of Modern Britain, p. 342.

Other significant changes happened on Ted Heath’s watch. The school leaving age was raised to sixteen. To cope with international currency mayhem caused by the Nixon decision to suspend convertibility, the old imperial sterling area finally went in 1972. The Pill was made freely available on the NHS. Local government was radically reorganised, with no fewer than eight hundred English councils disappearing and huge new authorities, much disliked, being created in their place. Heath defended this on the basis that the old Victorian system could cope with ‘the growth of car ownership and of suburbia, which was undermining the distinction between town and country.’ Many saw it as bigger-is-better dogma. There was more of that when responsibility for NHS hospitals was taken away from hundreds of local boards and passed to new regional and area health authorities, at the suggestion of a new cult that was then just emerging – management consultancy. In the seventies, the familiar and the local seemed everywhere in retreat.

(to be continued; for sources, see part two)

Appendix One – The Queen & Tolkien:

In 1972 – Queen Elizabeth II appointed JRR Tolkien Commander of the Order of the British Empire “for services to English Literature.” Outside Buckingham Palace with his daughter Priscilla.

After the death of his wife, Edith, in 1971, Tolkien’s happiness was added to by the honours that were conferred on him. He received several invitations to visit American universities and receive doctorates, but he couldn’t face the long journey. There were also many tributes within his homeland. He was profoundly moved when, in the spring of 1972, he was invited to Buckingham Palace to be presented with a C.B.E. by the Queen. She had been eleven when The Hobbit was published, and The Lord of the Rings had hit bookstores two years into her reign. Tolkien wrote to his publisher Rayner Unwin about the day,

“… I was very deeply moved by my brief meeting with the Queen, & our few words together. Quite unlike anything that I had expected.”

Humphrey Carpenter (ed.) (1981), Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien. London: George Allen & Unwin, Letter 334.

After everything he had lived through and all the fairy stories he had written, meeting the Queen was a special moment for him. But perhaps the most gratifying of all was the award in June 1972 of an honorary Doctorate of Letters from his own University of Oxford; not, as was made clear, for The Lord of the Rings, but for his contribution to philology.

The following year, on 2nd September, J.R.R. Tolkien died, aged eighty-one. His requiem mass was held in Oxford four days after his death, in the plain modern church in Headington, which he had attended so often since his retirement. Born in South Africa during the reign of Queen Victoria and growing up in Birmingham during the reign of Edward VII, Tolkien researched, taught and wrote in England during the reigns of all four Windsor monarchs (before Charles III), over six decades, from George V to Elizabeth.

(Appendix Two is in Part Two)

One thought on “Majesty & Grace IX: The Reign of Elizabeth Windsor, 1963-78: Part 1 – Rebellious Britons.

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