Majesty & Grace IX: The Reign of Elizabeth Windsor, 1963-78: Part 2 – Multicultural Britons.

Present into Past – The Problem of Retrospection:

The closer that social historians get to their own times, the harder it is for them to be sure they have hold of what is essential about the period in question: the more difficult it is to separate the rich tapestry of social life which appears on the surface of the woven fabric from its underlying patterns. This is the problem of perspective that historians have to try to overcome in their craft. The period from 1963 to 1978 was one of rapid social change and one in which the pace and direction of social change itself became a matter of concern in social discourse. The discussion in the sixties was about whether the surface evidence of change really added up to a social revolution for ordinary people. What happened to the standards of living of ordinary Britons in the seventies threw into question the depth of the changes. That argument is still unresolved: more than sixty years later we are still living out its contradictory legacy. Many witnesses to the period are still alive, and each with their own differing memories, impressions and interpretations of the period.

The Caernarfon Investiture of 1969 & the botched bombings:

The ‘Investiture Crisis’ as it was known to contemporaries in Wales referred to an undercurrent of violence in Welsh nationalism and republicanism that had been getting stronger since the drowning of the village of Tryweryn to supply Liverpool with water earlier in 1957. This was done by an Act of Parliament, despite almost all Welsh MPs voting against it. As the Welsh historian John Davies wrote in his 1990 History of Wales:

Liverpool’s ability to ignore the virtually unanimous opinion of the representatives of the Welsh people, confirmed one of the central tenets of Plaid Cymru – that the national Welsh community, under the existing order, was wholly powerless.

J. Davies (1990): Allen Lane.

Attacks on the Tryweryn reservoir followed and the Free Wales Army was founded in 1963. Violent (against property) Welsh Nationalism was, thankfully, almost as unpopular and badly organised as violent Scottish nationalism. But the sabotage of reservoirs yielded to a bombing campaign during the run-up to the Investiture in which two bombers blew themselves up in trying to blow up the Royal train, and a little child was mutilated in an accident with explosives near the walls of Caernarfon Castle, where the ceremony was due to take place. Mudiad Amddiffyn Cymru (Welsh Defence Movement) was behind the bombings, in league with the Free Wales Army.

In preparation for his Investiture in 1969, Charles spent some time at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, learning Welsh and studying the history and culture(s) of Wales under the tutelage of Professor Teddy Millward. The initial purpose of this was so that he would know enough of the ancient language to be able to make the oath at the Investiture Ceremony and, subsequently, to read speeches out loud with intelligible pronunciation. When a delegation of student leaders met him at Lampeter in 1980, he admitted to them that his conversation was limited and that although he had retained much of the vocabulary Millward had taught him, he had not had many opportunities to use it. Part of his problem was that the formal, classical register in written form was very different to the Cymraeg Byw (Living Welsh) needed for everyday communication and simple conversation. Nevertheless, on his first visit to Cardiff as Charles III, following his mother’s death, he delivered a speech in Welsh with considerable accuracy and fluency. As Nelson Mandela once said, if you talk to people in a common language they know, you will speak to their minds. You will speak to their hearts if you talk to them in their native language. Charles seems to have understood and to have sought to apply the ‘Mandela principle.’

Tynged yr Iaith – the Fate of the Language:

By 1961, Welsh speakers made up only twenty-five per cent of the population, and by 1971 they were barely twenty per cent. The crisis appeared terminal, so in 1962 the writer and founder member of the Welsh Nationalist Party, Saunders Lewis (pictured below) returned to public affairs determined to prevent the death of the ancient language. In the BBC Wales Annual Radio Lecture that year, Tynged yr Iaith (The Fate of the Language), he called upon the Welsh people to make the salvation of the language their central priority and to be prepared to use revolutionary means to achieve it. The response was remarkable. After the formation of Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg, the Welsh Language Society, its young activists stormed all over Wales, opening twenty years of direct action campaigning against offices, roadsigns, staging sit-ins, wrecking TV masts, generally making life hell for any kind of official and the police. While Plaid Cymru remained somewhat aloof, there was much human overlap, and the heavy colonisation of Welsh institutions, particularly in the media, by Welsh-speaking professional people (‘sons of ministers‘) proved to be of powerful assistance.

Around this campaign, which assumed the character of a crusade, all sorts of movements developed: a major drive to establish Welsh-medium nurseries, primary and secondary schools, Welsh-speaking University College hostels, special posts for the teaching of Welsh, demands for an all Welsh-medium College, or Coleg Cymraeg, and for positive discrimination in favour of the use of Welsh. There were crash immersive programmes, or ‘wlpan’ for learners, dysgwyr, based on the invention of a modern form of the language, Cymraeg Byw, (Living Welsh), and the grouping of learners into an organisation at local and national levels. The new Welsh Arts Council directed subsidies towards an ailing Welsh Language publishing world. Step by step a Labour government, followed by a Conservative one, was forced to yield; a Secretary of State for Wales in 1964, a major Language Act in 1967, and a whole series of autonomy measures. Within, around and distinct from this drive a whole world of Welsh language publishing, film production, radio and television broadcasting and infinite varieties of pop, rock, folk and urban music mushroomed.

Many of these initiatives, like the Welsh-medium Channel 4, S4C, did not come to full fruition until the early 1980s, but most originated in the mid to late sixties. These were the most visibly Welsh signals of the onset of outright revolt in the late sixties. The major factor in this uprising was disillusionment with the Welsh Labour establishment. The abrupt reversal of Labour government policy in 1966, after the high hopes of 1964, seemed a culminating disappointment after long years of diminishing relevance in the Party’s policies, internal debate and inner life. The Labour hegemony in Wales had hardened into an oligarchy. On the other hand, the long and dismal history of elitist and contemptuous attitudes towards Anglo-Welsh people had been a disturbing feature of Welsh nationalism and much language-focused Welsh national feeling since the days of its founders.

Young people in Wales and Scotland generated a tide of nationalist protest, the scale of which had until then only been experienced in the Basque regions of Spain or in French Quebec. Neither Wales nor Scotland had enjoyed the economic growth of the south and midlands of England in the fifties, despite the ‘Development Areas’ legislation and programmes introduced by Labour governments before 1951. Their national aspirations were hardly fulfilled by the formal institutions as the offices of Westminster-appointed Secretaries of State. In the case of Wales, this appointment was only made for the first time in centuries by the Wilson government in 1964. Scottish nationalists complained, with some justification, that the very title Elizabeth II was a misnomer in their country since Elizabeth I had not been Queen of Scots.

Caernarfon Castle was set up for the Investiture of Prince Charles on
30th June 1969

As far as many of the Welsh were concerned, the title of ‘Prince of Wales’ (Tywysog Cymry), as bestowed by the monarch by ‘right of conquest’ on the eldest son and heir to the English throne since the reign of Edward I, was also a misnomer. In Wales, there was the added theme of an ancient language and culture threatened with extinction in an unequal battle against anglicising mass culture and media. A narrow victory for a Welsh Nationalist, Gwynfor Evans, in a parliamentary by-election in Carmarthen in 1966, was followed by a renewed civil disobedience campaign in support of the defence and propagation of the Welsh language. Under Evans’ leadership, a new Plaid Cymru (Party of Wales) began to emerge. In 1969, elaborate ceremonies greeted the formal Investiture of Prince Charles as Prince of Wales, to paraphrase Gwyn Williams, in a tumult of public acclaim, largely in English, and a tumult of public mockery, largely in Welsh.

The Anglo-Welsh historian Dai Smith, more than a decade later drew a comparison between the Investiture of Edward Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII) in 1911 and the more recent ceremony at Caernarfon:

Here was stage-managed the investiture of Edward, Prince of Wales, in a rich ceremony of dedication and loyalty. This patriotic event could be seen, like that of Charles in 1969, as a plot to dupe the ‘masses’. In this scenario, the chief Welsh politicians of ‘deliver up’ the nation to English/ British domination and, in due course, are suitably rewarded with titular baubles – Lloyd George becomes the Earl of Dwyfor and George Thomas becomes Viscount Tonypandy. … Neither event defused radical politics in Wales – after 1969 Plaid Cymru grew in influence and the miners’ unions began their five-year campaign…

Dai Smith (1984), Wales! Wales? Hemel Hempstead: George Allen & Unwin.

The Investiture Ceremony
Celtic Languages & Dialects in the British Isles:

After many decades of decline, most notably (and dangerously) in the number of ‘monoglot’ native speakers, by 1981 there was currently a stable proportion of between one-fifth and one-quarter of Welsh residents, over half a million, describing themselves as Welsh speakers. The Celtic nations of the British Isles also protected their own Celtic-influenced or Scots-influenced dialects or varieties of ‘English’, each of which can be subdivided further into localised varieties. For example, Welsh English, or Anglo-Welsh, has differing northern and southern varieties, with parts of the south, specifically south Pembrokeshire and the Gower Peninsula, having had English and Flemish colonies since the twelfth century. A uniform spoken English across the British Isles is an unlikely prospect. In Wales, the same is true of spoken Welsh, with varieties in accent and vocabulary, if not in grammar.

As far as constitutional Welsh nationalism was concerned, Gwynfor Evans lost his Carmarthen seat in the 1970 general election but two more striking Plaid Cymru by-election performances Rhondda West and Caerffili (Caerphilly) in 1967 and 1968 suggested that the Carmarthen victory had been was no flash in the pan. At last, the complacent Welsh Labour Party was being challenged, and in the 1974 election, Plaid Cymru won two northern Welsh seats, Caernarfon and Meirionydd, taking a third in the second general election that year. Welsh Labour was divided in its response. Michael Foot, MP for Aneurin Bevan’s old seat of Ebbw Vale, thought the nationalists should be ‘bought off’ through reform measures, including devolution, but Neil Kinnock, who declared that road-sign bilingualism (like that shown below) was a waste of funds, believed they should be fought. Either way, they held their seats, continuing to pose an electoral threat in Labour’s traditional heartlands in the southern valleys and refusing to ‘go away.’ Neither did the bilingual road signs.

A road sign in Powys.

The equality accorded to English and Welsh on road signs symbolised a victory for Welsh language activists. They had campaigned long and hard to gain official recognition of their native language and to ensure its survival. By 1974, both Cornish and Manx no longer had any native speakers and attempts to revive them led to only a very small number of learners of both Celtic languages. Although the official figure for users of Irish Gaelic was subsequently recorded as 1.4 million in the Republic, equivalent to forty per cent of the population. But this reflected the status of the language in Irish schools, whereas the habitual use of Irish in daily life in the Gaeltacht, the Irish-speaking communities, was estimated at 0.25 per cent of the population. In Scotland, the Scottish Gaelic community accounted for about one per cent of the population there. According to the 1981 Census, only 473 children spoke Gaelic according to the 1981 Census.

Broadford Primary School, Isle of Skye, where children are taught in Gaelic.

Skye was once thought of as the centre of the Gaeltachd, the land of the Gaels. The only large concentration of Gaelic speakers still left on the island is on the northeast tip, the Staffin peninsula. The parish is one of the last redoubts of the northern Gaels. All the children in Staffin in the 1980s knew Gaelic but seldom used it after transfer to secondary school in Portree, where the other children teased them, calling them teuchtars or bumpkins (uneducated people of the land). They also thought that the language wouldn’t get them anywhere. As Gaelic speakers, they would just stay on their croft and stay poor. It would be better for them to develop their English and head south.

A Gaelic-speaking child at Broadford Primary School.
Wales, the Cymry & the Anglo-Welsh in the late seventies:

Meanwhile, around the Welsh language, the clamour and turmoil continued into the eighties, as did the many initiatives to arrest its decline in the previous decades. According to the 1981 Census returns, these seemed to have worked. Although the overall proportion of Welsh speakers had slipped further since 1971, to 18.9 per cent, there had been a dramatic slowing in the rate of decline over the decade, and it seemed almost to be coming to a halt. However, while there were marginal increases in Anglo-Welsh areas such as Gwent and Glamorgan, there was still a serious decline in the heartlands of the language, most notably in the southwest, where the fall was six per cent. There had been some ‘retrenchment’ in Ceredigion and parts of Gwynedd, and there were unmistakable signs that all the campaigning had begun to take effect among the younger age groups. Overall, out of a population of almost 2.8 million, over 550,000 identified as Welsh speakers. Nonetheless, the continuing threat to the bro or Welsh-speaking heartland had led to the growth of a new movement in the seventies, Adfer (‘restore’), with a swathe of intellectual zealots, dedicated to building a monoglot Welsh gaeltachd in the west and to the construction of an ethnically pure and self-sufficient economy and society there. This organisation viewed the true Cymry as the Welsh speakers and adopted a chauvinistic attitude towards the remainder of the people of Wales.

Yet Welsh-speaking figures from the industrial south, like Dai Francis, the leader of the South Wales NUM (see part one), who became a Bard in the Order of the Gorsedd of the National Eisteddfod, became leading Welsh-speaking figures. Francis was nominated by Undeb Cenedlaethol Myfyrwyr Cymru (NUS Wales) as an alternative candidate to Prince Charles for the role of Chancellor of the University of Wales in 1977/78. He lost the contest (the exact result of the vote was never declared), but only after the campaign had caused considerable embarrassment to the Welsh establishment in the University Court, one of the few all-Wales bodies at this time. Most importantly, it enabled UCMC to raise support among Welsh academics for the official recognition of the language in education on a nationwide basis in subsequent years.

A cogent and effective proposal for an elected Welsh assembly had been formulated and presented by the MP and cabinet minister Cledwyn Hughes in the 1960s, but it got nowhere. The proposal which emerged in the mid-seventies was partly an afterthought to the response to the growing strength of the nationalist challenge in Scotland. It was, though, an ineffective compromise for Wales, which won no real enthusiasm, even among its supporters among the constitutionalist nationalists in Wales. After endless parliamentary agonies, it was to be submitted to a referendum on St David’s Day, 1st March 1979. However, it was already dead in the water by the end of 1978, due to an amendment at Westminster requiring forty per cent of both the Scottish and Welsh electorates to vote ‘yes.’

It was resisted by a huge bloc of opinion ranging from the representatives of multinational corporations and their British subsidiaries to the populist press and on to the Adferites in the north. It was also fiercely opposed by a bloc of South Wales Labour MPs led by Neil Kinnock and Leo Abse, who played on fears of their Anglo-Welsh constituents of being taken over and dominated by a Welsh-speaking, mainly northern, ‘crach’ (élite). There were also those on the left who were suspicious of what they had increasingly viewed as a corrupt Welsh-British establishment. Nationalist supporters also found themselves in a difficult situation, especially in Caernarfon and Meirionydd, where their voters, not just the supporters of Adfer, were not keen on being ruled from Cardiff. Not surprisingly, faced with all these obstacles, the campaign lacked conviction. As Gwyn Williams commented:

… it was an unreal war over an unreal proposal. One major reality, however, was a wholesale political revolt against the kind of Wales being presented and created through the medium of the Welsh language campaigns. It was a revulsion wholly negative in content and style.

Gwyn A. Williams (1985), When Was Wales? Pelican (Penguin) Books.

Professor Gwyn Williams, Photograph by HTV Wales.

However, Williams also pointed out that far more than a Welsh-language Wales was being rejected. Opinion polls showed the Conservatives running at a level of support they hadn’t enjoyed for a century. After the economic crisis of 1976 and its unnecessary surrender to the IMF (see below), the Labour government adopted the policies which the radical new leadership of the Conservatives had been developing. In the seventies, Labour ceased to be either socialist or social-democratic. Wales was plagued by economic difficulties, and its working population was being transformed at a pace too swift for its traditional institutions to handle. It is, in retrospect, that it was not interested in public discourse mainly among its intellectuals that focused largely and widely on language and culture.

The reality was that, by 1978, the client economy of Wales was in very deep trouble. Yet despite the success of Plaid Cymru in local elections during the final years of ‘old Labour’ rule, they did not seem to pose quite the same threat as the SNP. Of course, Welsh water was far less valuable and cheaper to extract than Scottish oil, which was fundamentally why the proposed Welsh assembly was to have fewer powers than the Scottish one. It was to oversee a large chunk of public expenditure, but it would not have law-making powers. The proposal was therefore unlikely to make anyone’s blood pound.

‘Black Gold’ – North Sea Gas & Oil Fields:

Certainly, living standards continued to rise, aided by the discovery in the North Sea of natural gas in 1965 and oil in 1969. The complex mosaic of yellow blocks in the 2016 map of the North Sea (below) illustrates the development of the UK oil industry which provided an economic boon to seventies Britain. The Forties field, shown on the map, was the biggest of the North Sea oil fields whose royalties made the country an unexpected hydrocarbon superpower for a limited period. In 1959, following a single find of natural gas in Gröningen in the Netherlands, it became apparent the geological structure of the North Sea meant that further discoveries were likely, although the prohibitive cost of drilling in offshore waters impeded initial exploration.

Section of the map below which gives a close-up of the Forties field & pipelines in Sea 2.

The first large find was also of gas, struck in the West Sole field, off the Yorkshire coast, by British Petroleum’s Sea Gem platform in September 1965, though celebrations were soon dampened when the rig sank three months later, with the loss of thirteen lives, in the North Sea’s first major disaster. By 1969 oil had been struck in the Montrose field east of Aberdeen, followed soon after by the giant Forties field in 1970 and the Brent field a year later. The system of licensing fees for exploration and royalties payable on gas and oil production provided an economic shot in the arm for a country which was struggling to restructure its traditional industries and facing increased competition from emerging industrial giants such as Japan. Production became even more profitable after the 1973 oil shock when the principal Middle Eastern oil-producing countries imposed oil embargoes in response to Western countries’ policies which they said favoured Israel in its struggle with the Palestinian Arabs. As oil importers sought alternative sources of supply, global prices rose and North Sea oil found new customers.

Large-scale map, showing the full extent of the North Sea oil fields.

By the time of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, in 1977, North Sea Oil was coming ashore to the tune of more than half a million barrels a day, meeting a third of the country’s needs. Britain would be self-sufficient in oil by 1980 and already was in gas. Oil and gas were not the only new sources of power to be exploited in the sixties. A lonely stretch of coast near Leiston in Suffolk became the site of Britain’s second nuclear power station, built in the early 1960s. In 1966 power began surging out from the grey, cuboid plant into the national grid. By the mid-seventies, Sizewell’s five hundred and eighty thousand kilowatts were going a long way towards meeting the electricity needs of eastern England.

Sizewell Nuclear Power Station (2014)

Devaluation & Deindustrialisation:

But there were also disquieting signs that Britain was approaching an as yet undefined cultural and financial crisis. British economic growth rates did not match those of competitor states, and it was partly for this reason that Britain applied to join the European Economic Community, in 1961 and 1967, entry both times being vetoed by France.

New kinds of industry, based largely on the revolution in electronics, came into being alongside the old, without displacing them. There was a shift in the patterns of skills, and of work, and the composition of the labour force, with more workers involved in clerical, highly skilled or service occupations. At the same time, more workers were pushed down into the unskilled ranks of mass production. They became more mobile again, pulled to where the jobs were. The pattern of regional decline in the older industrial areas and rapid, unorganised growth in the new areas began to re-emerge. In some areas and industries, the long-term pattern of continuity from one generation to the next persisted, while in other, newer areas, this continuity was broken.

Long-term changes patterns of employment, 1921-76.

Hitherto the social fabric across Britain had been kept intact, at least in part, because of high and advancing living standards for the population as a whole. But clear evidence mounted up in the late 1960s that increasing economic pressures were adding to new social tensions. Britain lurched from one financial expedient to another, with the frequent balance of payments crises and many runs on the pound sterling. Devaluation in 1967 did not produce any lasting remedy. Economically, the real problems of the decade arose from both the devaluation of the currency in November 1967 and the deterioration in industrial relations. Employment in manufacturing nationally declined, until it accounted for less than a third of the workforce by 1973. The income policy declared by the Wilson Government was hard to swallow for engineering workers who had long enjoyed the benefits of free collective bargaining and wage differentials. By way of contrast, employment in the service sector rose, so that by 1973, over half of all workers in the UK were employed in providing services. The map below shows both the long-term and regional character of the decline of the British manufacturing industries. The resulting mass unemployment hurt the old industries of the Northwest badly, but the job losses were proportionately as high in the Southeast and Midlands, where there were newer manufacturers.

The Second Wilson Labour administration that followed faced a huge balance-of-payments crisis and the tumbling value of the pound and they soon found themselves under the control of the IMF (International Monetary Fund), which insisted on severe spending cuts. The contraction of manufacturing began to accelerate and inflation was also increasing alarmingly, reaching twenty-four per cent by 1975. It came to be seen as a more urgent problem than unemployment and there was a national and international move to the right and against high-taxing and high-spending governments. Demands were made that they should stop propping up lame-duck industries with public money or taking them, however temporarily, into public ownership.

By the mid-seventies, the dock area at Felixstowe covered hundreds of acres, many reclaimed, made up of spacious wharves, warehouses and storage areas equipped with the latest cargo handling machinery. The transformation had begun in 1956 as the direct result of foresight and careful planning. The Company launched a three-million pound project to create a new deep-water berth geared to the latest bulk transportation technique – containerisation. It calculated that changing trading patterns and Felixstowe’s proximity to Rotterdam and Antwerp provided exciting prospects for an efficient, well-equipped port. Having accomplished that, it set aside another eight million for an oil jetty and bulk liquid storage facilities. In addition, a passenger terminal was opened in 1975. The dock soon acquired a reputation for fast, efficient handling of all types of cargo, and consignments could easily reach the major industrial centres through faster road and rail networks.

There were many reasons for this unprecedented growth. which brought Suffolk a prosperity unknown since the expansion of the cloth trade in the mid-fourteenth century. As back then, Suffolk’s depression gave a boost to new development. Most of the county was within eighty miles of London and served by improving road and rail connections. Ports like Felixstowe were no further from the capital than those of Kent and they were a great deal closer to the industrial Midlands and the North.

An old milestone in the centre of Woodbridge, Suffolk

Some of Suffolk’s most beautiful countryside was no further from the metropolis than the stockbroker belt of the Home Counties, and yet land and property prices in Suffolk were less than half of what they were there. People were becoming more mobile and light industries were less tied to traditional centres. Companies escaping from high overheads found that they could find both the facilities and labour they needed in Ipswich, Bury, Sudbury and Haverhill. Executives also discovered that they could live in areas of great natural beauty and yet be within commuting distance of their City desks. Moreover, the shift in international trade focused attention once more on the east coast ports. As the Empire was being disbanded and Britain was drawn increasingly towards trade with the European Common Market, producers were looking for the shortest routes to the continent. More and more lorries took to the roads through Suffolk.

Meanwhile, the rate of migration into Coventry had undoubtedly slowed down by the mid-sixties. Between 1961 and 1971 the population rose by nearly six per cent compared with a rise of nineteen per cent between 1951 and 1961. The failure of Coventry’s manufacturing industry to maintain immediate post-war growth rates was providing fewer opportunities for migrant manual workers, while the completion of the city centre redevelopment programme and the large housing schemes reduced the number of itinerant building workers. Between 1951 and 1966 the local population increased by approximately four thousand every year, but in the following five years the net annual increase fell to about a thousand per annum. Moreover, the proportion of this increase attributable to migration had dramatically declined. Between 1951 and 1961, a Department of the Environment survey estimated that whereas migration accounted for about forty-five per cent of population growth in the Coventry belt, in the following five years it made up only eighteen per cent. In the following three years to 1969, the survey noted that the same belt had begun, marginally, to lose population through out-migration.

Between the census of 1961 and the mini-census of 1966, some major shifts in the pattern of migration into Coventry took place. There was a substantial increase in immigration from Commonwealth countries, colonies and protectorates during these five years. The total number of those born in these territories stood at 11,340. The expansion needs to be kept in perspective, however. Nearly two-thirds of the local population was born in the West Midlands, and there were still nearly twice as many migrants from Ireland as from the Commonwealth and Colonies. Indeed, in 1966 only 3.5 per cent of Coventry’s population had been born outside the British Isles, compared with the national figure of five per cent. The Welsh stream had slowed down, increasing by only eight per cent in the previous fifteen years, and similar small increases were registered among migrants from Northern England. There were significant increases from Scotland, London and the South East, but only a very small increase from continental Europe.

By the mid-seventies, Coventry was faced with a new challenge posed by changes in the age structure of its population. The city was having to care for its increasing numbers of elderly citizens, a cost which soon became difficult to bear, given its declining economy. By 1974, it was estimated that the local population was rising by two thousand per year, twice the rate of the late 1960s. By 1976, however, the youthfulness of the city’s population was being lost as the proportion of over sixty-five-year-olds rose above the national average. With its large migrant element, it began to lose population rapidly during this decline, from 335,238 to 310,216 between 1971 and 1981, a fall of 7.5 per cent. Nearly sixty thousand jobs were lost during the recession, and given the shallowness of the family structure of many Coventrians, this resulted in a sizeable proportion of its citizens being all too willing to seek their fortunes elsewhere. For many others, given the widespread nature of the decline in manufacturing in the rest of the UK, there was simply nowhere to go.

Migration, Immigration and Racialism – Rivers of Blood:

Elsewhere, however, the number of ‘New Commonwealth’ immigrants was proving a cause for concern, mainly, as it seems in retrospect, to the skin colour of these immigrants, and partly, in the case of south Asians, due to religious and cultural differences with the host country. These ‘concerns’ were not new, and nor were the active forms of prejudice and discrimination which had accompanied them since the mid-fifties in the general population. In addition to dilapidated housing and racial discrimination in employment, and sometimes at the hands of the police, there was the added hazard of racial bigotry in older urban areas. What was new was the way in which this was articulated and amplified from the early sixties onwards by Conservative MPs and parliamentary candidates, leading to the emergence of the National Front as a political force in the early seventies.

Harold Wilson was always a sincere anti-racist, but he did not try to repeal the Conservatives’ 1962 Act with its controversial quota system. One of the new migrations that arrived to beat the 1963 quota system just before Wilson came to power came from a rural area of Pakistan threatened with flooding by a huge dam project. The poor farming villages from the Muslim north, particularly around Kashmir, were not an entrepreneurial environment. They began sending their men to earn money in the labour-starved textile mills of Bradford and the surrounding towns. Unlike the West Indians, the Pakistanis and Indians were more likely to send for their families soon after arrival in Britain. Soon there would be large, distinct Muslim communities clustered in areas of Bradford, Leicester and other older manufacturing towns.

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Unlike the West Indians, the Pakistanis and Indians were more likely to send for their families soon after arrival in Britain. Soon there would be large, distinct Muslim communities clustered in areas of Bradford, Leicester and other older manufacturing towns. The photo above shows a south Asian immigrant in a Bradford textile factory. But the decline of the textile industries in the 1970s led to high long-term unemployment in south Asian communities.

Unlike the Caribbean immigrants, who were largely Christian by background, these new streams of migration were bringing people who were religiously separated from the white ‘Christians’ around them and cut off from the main forms of working-class entertainment, many of which involved the consumption of alcohol, from which they abstained. Muslim women were expected to remain in the domestic environment and ancient traditions of arranged marriages carried over from the subcontinent meant that there was almost no intermarriage with the native population. To many of the ‘natives’, the ‘Pakis’, as they were then casually called, even to their faces, were less threatening than young Caribbean men, but they were also more culturally alien.

Wilson had felt strongly enough about the ‘racialist’ behaviour in the Tory campaign at Smethwick, to the west of Birmingham, in 1964, to publicly denounce its victor Peter Griffiths as a ‘parliamentary leper’. Smethwick had attracted a significant number of immigrants from Commonwealth countries, the largest ethnic group being Sikhs from Punjab in India, and there were also many Windrush Caribbeans settled in the area. There was also a background of factory closures and a growing waiting list for local council housing. Griffiths ran a campaign critical of both the opposition’s and the government’s immigration policies. The Conservatives were widely reported as using the slogan “if you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour” but the neo-Nazi British Movement later claimed that its members had produced the initial slogan as well as led the poster and sticker campaign. However, Griffiths did not condemn the phrase and was quoted as saying:

“I should think that is a manifestation of popular feeling. I would not condemn anyone who said that.”

The 1964 general election involved a nationwide swing from the Conservatives to the Labour Party which resulted in the party gaining a narrow five-seat majority. However, in Smethwick, as Conservative candidate, Peter Griffiths gained the seat and unseated the sitting Labour MP, Patrick Gordon-Walker, who had served as Shadow Foreign Secretary for the eighteen months prior to the election. In these circumstances, the Smethwick campaign, already attracting national media coverage, and the result itself stood out as clearly the result of racialism.

Griffiths, in his maiden speech to the Commons, pointed out what he believed were the real problems his constituency faced, including factory closures and over four thousand families awaiting council accommodation. But in 1965, Wilson’s new Home Secretary, Frank Soskice, tightened the quota system, cutting down on the number of dependents allowed in, and giving the Government the power to deport illegal immigrants. At the same time, it offered the first Race Relations Act as a ‘sweetener’. This outlawed the use of the ‘colour bar’ in public places and by potential landlords, and discrimination in public services, also banning incitement to racial hatred like that seen in the Smethwick campaign. At the time, it was largely seen as toothless, yet the combination of restrictions on immigration and the measures to better integrate the migrants already in Britain did form the basis for all subsequent policies.

Birmingham’s booming postwar economy had not only attracted its ‘West Indian’ settlers from 1948 onwards, but had also ‘welcomed’ south Asians from Gujarat and Punjab in India, and East Pakistan (Bangladesh) both after the war and the partition of India and in increasing numbers from the early 1960s. The South Asian and West Indian populations were equal in size and concentrated in the inner city wards of the city and in west Birmingham, particularly Sparkbrook and Handsworth, as well as in Sandwell (see map above; then known as Smethwick and Warley). Labour shortages had developed in Birmingham as a result of an overall movement towards skilled and white-collar employment among the native population, which created vacancies in less attractive, poorly paid, unskilled and semi-skilled jobs in manufacturing, particularly in metal foundries and factories, and in the transport and healthcare sectors of the public services. These jobs were filled by newcomers from the Commonwealth.

Whatever the eventual problems thrown up by the mutual sense of alienation between natives and immigrants, Britain’s fragile new consensus and ‘truce’ on race relations of 1964-65 were about to be broken by another form of racial discrimination, this time executed by Africans, mainly the Kikuyu people of Kenya. After the decisive terror and counter-terror of the Mau Mau campaign, Kenya won its independence under the leadership of Jomo Kenyatta in 1963 and initially thrived as a relatively tolerant market economy. Alongside the majority of Africans, however, and the forty thousand whites who stayed after independence, there were some 185,000 Asians in Kenya.

They had mostly arrived during British rule, were mostly better off than the local Kikuyu, and were well-established as doctors, civil servants, traders, business people and police. They also had full British passports and therefore an absolute right of entry to Britain, which had been confirmed by meetings of Tory ministers before independence. When Kenyatta gave them the choice of surrendering their British passports and gaining full Kenyan nationality or becoming foreigners, dependent on work permits, most of them chose to keep their British nationality. In the generally unfriendly and sometimes menacing atmosphere of Kenya in the mid-sixties, this seemed the sensible option. Certainly, there was no indication from London that their rights to entry would be taken away.

The 1968 Immigration Act was specifically targeted at restricting Kenyan Asians with British passports. As conditions grew worse for them in Kenya, many of them decided to seek refuge in the mother country of the Empire which had settled them in the first place. Throughout 1967 they were coming in by plane at the rate of about a thousand per month. The newspapers began to depict the influx on their front pages and the television news, by now watched in most homes, showed great queues waiting for British passports and flights. It was at this point that Enoch Powell, Conservative MP for Wolverhampton and shadow minister, in an early warning shot, said that half a million East African Asians could eventually enter which was ‘quite monstrous’. He called for an end to work permits and a complete ban on dependants coming to Britain. Other prominent Tories, like Ian Macleod, argued that the Kenyan Asians could not be left stateless and that the British Government had to keep its promise to them. The Labour government was also split on the issue, with the liberals, led by Roy Jenkins, believing that only Kenyatta could halt the migration by being persuaded to offer better treatment. The new Home Secretary, Jim Callaghan, on the other hand, was determined to respond to the concerns of Labour voters about the unchecked migration.

By the end of 1967, the numbers arriving per month had doubled to two thousand. In February 1968, Callaghan decided to act. The Commonwealth Immigrants Act effectively slammed the door while leaving a ‘cat flap’ open for a very small annual quota, leaving some twenty thousand people ‘stranded’ and stateless in a country which no longer wanted them. The bill was rushed through in the spring of 1968 and has been described as among the most divisive and controversial decisions ever taken by any British government. Some MPs viewed it as the most shameful piece of legislation ever enacted by Parliament, the ultimate appeasement of racist hysteria. The government responded with a tougher anti-discrimination bill in the same year. For many others, however, the passing of the act was the moment when the political élite, in the shape of Jim Callaghan, finally woke up and listened to their working-class workers. Polls of the public showed that 72% supported the act. Never again would the idea of free access to Britain be seriously entertained by mainstream politicians.

This was the backcloth to the notorious Rivers of Blood speech made in Birmingham by Enoch Powell, in which he prophesied violent racial war if immigration continued. Powell had argued that the passport guarantee was never valid in the first place. Despite his unorthodox views, Powell was still a member of Edward Heath’s shadow cabinet which had just agreed to back Labour’s Race Relations Bill. But Powell had gone uncharacteristically quiet, apparently telling a local friend,

I’m going to make a speech at the weekend and it’s going to go up “fizz” like a rocket, but whereas all rockets fall to earth, this one is going to stay up. 

The ‘friend’, Clem Jones, the editor of Powell’s local newspaper, The Wolverhampton Express and Star, had advised him to time the speech for the early evening television bulletins, and not to distribute it generally beforehand. He came to regret the advice. In a small room at the Midland Hotel in Birmingham on 20th April 1968, three weeks after the act had been passed and the planes carrying would-be Kenyan Asian immigrants had been turned around, Powell quoted a Wolverhampton constituent, a middle-aged working man, who told him that if he had the money, he would leave the country because, in fifteen or twenty years time, the black man will have the whip hand over the white man. Powell continued by asking rhetorically how he dared say such a horrible thing, stirring up trouble and inflaming feelings. He answered himself:

“The answer is I do not have the right not to do so. Here is a decent, ordinary fellow-Englishman, who in broad daylight in my own town says to me, his Member of Parliament, that this country will not be worth living in for his children. I simply do not have the right to shrug my shoulders and think about something else. What he is saying, thousands and hundreds of thousands are saying and thinking… ‘Those whom the Gods wish to destroy, they first make mad.’ We must be mad, literally mad, as a nation to be permitting the annual flow of some fifty thousand dependants, who are for the most part the material growth of the immigrant-descended population. It is like watching a nation busily engaged in heaping its own its own funeral pyre.” 

He then used a classical illusion to make a controversial prophecy:

As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding. Like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the river Tiber foaming with much blood.’

Enoch Powell, the influential opponent of immigration.

In the context of his speech to this point and his earlier pronouncements as a maverick right-winger, most people considered this a prophecy of a violent inter-racial war if black immigration continued. His inflammatory rhetoric was taken as a prediction that rivers of blood would flow similar to those seen in the recent race riots in the United States. The speech therefore quickly became known as The Rivers of Blood Speech and formed the backdrop of the legislation. He also made various accusations, made by other constituents, that they had been persecuted by ‘Negroes’, having excrement posted through their letterboxes and being followed to the shops by children, charming wide-grinning pickaninnies chanting “Racialist.” If Britain did not begin a policy of voluntary repatriation, it would soon face the kind of race riots that were disfiguring America. Powell claimed that he was merely restating Tory policy. But the language used and his own careful preparation suggests it was both a call to arms by a politician who believed he was fighting for white English nationhood and a deliberate provocation aimed at Powell’s enemy, Heath.

After horrified consultations when he and other leading Tories had seen extracts of the speech on the television news, Heath promptly ordered Powell to phone him, and summarily sacked him. Heath announced that he found the speech racialist in tone and liable to exacerbate racial tensions. As Parliament returned three days after the speech, a thousand London dockers marched to Westminster in Powell’s support, carrying ‘Enoch is right’ placards; by the following day, he had received twenty thousand letters, almost all in support of his speech, with tens of thousands still to come. Smithfield meat porters and Heathrow airport workers also demonstrated in support of him. Powell received death threats and needed full-time police protection for a while; numerous marches were held against him and he found it difficult to make speeches at or near university campuses. Asked whether he was a racialist by the Daily Mail, he replied:

‘We are all racialists. Do I object to one coloured person in this country? No. To a hundred? No. To a million? (A query). To five million? Definitely.’

Did most people in 1968 agree with him, as Andrew Marr has suggested? It’s important to point out that, until he made this speech, Powell had been a Tory ‘insider’, though also seen as a maverick and a trusted member of Edward Heath’s shadow cabinet. He had rejected the consumer society growing around him in favour of what he saw as a ‘higher vision’. This was a romantic dream of an older, tougher, swashbuckling Britain, freed of continental and imperial (now ‘commonwealth’) entanglements, populated by ingenious, hard-working white people rather like himself. For this to become a reality, Britain would need to become a self-sufficient island, which ran entirely against the great forces of the time. His view was fundamentally nostalgic, harking back to the energetic Victorians and Edwardians. He drew sustenance from the people around him, who seemed to be excluded from mainstream politics. He argued that his Wolverhampton constituents had had immigration imposed on them without being asked and against their will.

But viewed from Fleet Street or the pulpits of broadcasting, he was seen as an irrelevance, marching off into the wilderness. In reality, although immigration was changing small patches of the country, mostly in west London, west Birmingham and the Black Country, it had, by 1968, barely impinged as an issue in people’s lives. That was why, at that time, it was relatively easy for the press and media to marginalize Powell and his acolytes in the Tory Party. He was expelled from the shadow cabinet for his anti-immigration speech, not so much for its racialist content, which was mainly given in reported speech, but for suggesting that the race relations legislation was merely throwing a match on gunpowder. This statement was a clear breach of shadow cabinet collective responsibility. Besides, the legislation controlling immigration and regulating race relations had already been passed, so it is difficult to see what Powell had hoped to gain from the speech, apart from embarrassing his nemesis, Ted Heath.

Edward Heath, leader of the Conservatives from 1965 & Prime Minister, 1970-74.
Ted’s Grandfather Clause & the Ugandan Refugees:

Despite the dramatic increase in wealth, coupled with the emergence of distinctive subcultures, technological advances and dramatic shifts in popular culture, there was a general feeling of disillusionment with Labour’s policies nationally. In the 1970 General Election, the Conservative Party, under its new leader Edward Heath, was returned to power. Although Enoch Powell had been sacked from the shadow cabinet by Heath, more legislative action followed with the 1971 Immigration Act, which effectively restricted citizenship on racial grounds by enacting the Grandfather Clause, by which a Commonwealth citizen who could prove that one of his or her grandparents was born in the UK was entitled to immediate entry clearance. This operated to the disadvantage of Black and Asian applicants while favouring citizens of the old Commonwealth, descendants of white settlers from Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa. Thus immigration control had moved away from primary immigration to restricting the entry of dependants, or secondary immigration.

Enoch Powell himself, from the back-benches, likened the distinction between ‘new’ and ‘old’ Commonwealth immigrants to a Nazi race purity law; he wanted a new definition of British citizenship instead. The grandparent rule was defeated by the right and left combining for opposite reasons but was restored two years later. In the meantime, the Kenyan crisis was replayed in another former East African colony, Uganda. Here, the swaggering, Sandhurst-educated Idi Amin had come to power in a coup. He announced that he had been told in a dream he must expel the country’s Asians, just as the Kenyans had theirs. Though Powell argued angrily that Britain had no obligation to allow the trapped Ugandan Asians into its cities, Heath acted decisively to bring them in. Airlifts were arranged, with a resettlement board to help them, and twenty-eight thousand arrived within a few weeks in 1971, eventually settling in the same areas as other East Africans, even though Leicester had published adverts in Ugandan newspapers pleading with them not to come there.

Those who knew Powell best claimed that he was not a racialist. The local newspaper editor, Clem Jones, thought that Enoch’s anti-immigration stance was not ideologically-motivated, but had simply been influenced by the anger of white Wolverhampton people who felt they were being crowded out; even in Powell’s own street of good, solid, Victorian houses, next door went sort of coloured and then another and then another house, and he saw the value of his own house go down. But, Jones added, Powell always worked hard as an MP for all his constituents, mixing with them regardless of colour:

We quite often used to go out for a meal, as a family, to a couple of Indian restaurants, and he was on extremely amiable terms with everybody there, ‘cos having been in India and his wife brought up in India, they liked that kind of food.

On the numbers migrating to Britain, however, Powell’s predicted figures were not totally inaccurate. Just before his 1968 speech, he had suggested that by the end of the century, the number of black and Asian immigrants and their descendants would number between five and seven million, about a tenth of the population. According to the 2001 census, 4.7 million people identified as black or Asian, equivalent to 7.9 per cent of the total population. Immigrants were, of course, far more strongly represented in percentage terms in English cities. Powell may have helped British society by speaking out on an issue that, until then, had remained taboo. However, the language of his discourse still seems quite inflammatory and provocative, even fifty years later, so much so that even historians hesitate to quote them. His words also helped to make the extreme-right Nazis of the National Front more acceptable. Furthermore, his core prediction of major civil unrest was not fulfilled, despite riots and street crime linked to disaffected youths from Caribbean immigrant communities in the 1980s. So, in the end, Enoch was not right, though he may have had a point.

Immigrants to Birmingham also tended to congregate in the western suburbs along the boundary with Smethwick, Warley, West Bromwich (now Sandwell), and Dudley, where many of them also settled. By 1971, the South Asian and West Indian populations were equal in size and concentrated in the inner city wards and in north-west Birmingham, especially in Handsworth, Sandwell and Sparkbrook. Labour shortages had developed in Birmingham as a result of an overall movement towards more skilled and white-collar employment among the native population, which created vacancies in the poorly paid, less attractive, poorly paid, unskilled and semi-skilled jobs in manufacturing, particularly in metal foundries and factories, and in the transport and health care sectors of the public services. These jobs were filled by newcomers from the new Commonwealth. In the 1970s, poor pay and working conditions forced some of these workers to resort to strike action. Hostility to Commonwealth immigrants was pronounced in some sections of the local white population and what became known as white flight, migration from the inner city areas to the expanding suburbs to the southwest and east of the city, though it is still unclear to what extent this migration was really due to concerns about immigrants.

In nearby Coventry, despite these emerging signs of a stall in population growth by the end of the sixties, the authorities continued to view the city and its surroundings as a major area of demographic expansion. In October 1970 a Ministry of Housing representative predicted that the city’s population would rise by a third over the next twenty years. Immigration had changed Britain more than almost any other single social factor in post-war Britain, more significant than the increase in life expectancy, birth control, the death of deference or the spread of suburban housing. The only change that eclipses it is the triumph of the car. It was not a change that was asked for by the indigenous British cultures, though the terms and circumstances of fifty million people choosing suddenly to ask and answer such a question, possibly in a referendum, are impossible to imagine.

The majority of British people did not want the arrival of large numbers of Irish, West Indians and south Asians, but neither did they want an end to capital punishment or membership in a federal European Union, or many other things that their political élite decided upon. Yet, at no stage was there a measured, rational and frank debate about immigration between party leaders in front of the electorate. And while allowing this change to take effect piecemeal and by default, the main parties did very little to ensure the successful integration of immigrants from the Caribbean or the Indian subcontinent. When help was given, in the case of the East African Asian refugees, integration was more successful. But even with these sudden influxes, there was no real attempt to nurture mixed communities, avoiding mini-ghettoes such as those that developed in the East Midlands and South Yorkshire. Race relations legislation did come, but only as a counter-balance to further restrictions.

Primary children celebrate Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, wearing their traditional dress.

As New Commonwealth immigrants began to become established in postwar Birmingham, community infrastructures, including places of worship, ethnic groceries, halal butchers and, most significantly, restaurants, began to develop. Birmingham became synonymous with the phenomenal rise of the ubiquitous curry house, and Sparkbrook in particular developed unrivalled Balti restaurants. These materially changed the city’s social life patterns among the native population. In addition to these obvious cultural contributions, the multilingual setting in which English exists today became more diverse in the sixties and seventies, especially due to immigration from the Indian subcontinent and the Caribbean. The largest of the community languages was Punjabi, with over half a million speakers by the late seventies. Still, there were also substantial communities of Gujarati speakers, as many as a third of a million, and up to a hundred thousand Bengali speakers. In some areas, such as East London, public notices recognised this.

A Bengali road sign in East London.

A new level of linguistic and cultural diversity was introduced by Commonwealth immigration. This manifested itself not just in the various ‘new’ languages that entered Britain, but also in the development of new dialects of English originating in different parts of the old Empire, especially in the West Indies.

Inter-cultural Diversity, Music & Integration:

Within the British West Indian community, Jamaican English, or the patois – as it is known – has had a special place as a token of identity. While there were complicated social pressures that frowned on Jamaican English in Jamaica, with parents complaining when their children ‘talk local’ too much, in England, it became almost obligatory to do so in London. One Jamaican schoolgirl who made the final passage to the Empire’s capital city with her parents in the seventies put it like this:

It’s rather weird ’cos when I was in Jamaica I wasn’t really allowed to speak it (Jamaican creole) in front of my parents. I found it difficult in Britain at first. When I went to school I wanted to be like the others in order not to stand out. So I tried speaking the patois as well… You get sort of a mixed reception. Some people say, ’You sound really nice, quite different.’ Other people say, ’You’re a foreigner, speak English. Don’t try to be like us, ’cos you’re not like us.’

Despite the mixed reception from her British West Indian friends, she persevered with the patois, and, as she put it after a year I lost my British accent, and was accepted. However, for many Caribbean visitors to Britain, the patois of Brixton and Notting Hill was a stylised form that was not, as they saw it, truly Jamaican, not least because British West Indians came from all parts of the Caribbean. Another West Indian schoolgirl, born in London and visiting Jamaica for the first time, was teased for her patois. She was told that she didn’t sound right and that. The experience convinced her that…

… in London the Jamaicans have developed their own language in patois, sort of. ’Cos they make up their own words in London, in, like, Brixton. And then it just develops into patois as well.

Researchers found that there were already white children in predominantly black schools who had begun using the British West Indian patois in order to be accepted by the majority of their friends, who were black:

I was born in Brixton and I’ve been living here for seventeen years, and so I just picked it up from hanging around with my friends who are mainly Black people. And so I can relate to them by using it, because otherwise I’d feel an outcast… But when I’m with someone else who I don’t know I try to speak as fluent English as possible. It’s like I feel embarrassed about it (the patois), I feel like I’m degrading myself by using it.

The unconscious racism of such comments pointed to the predicament of Black Britons. Not fully accepted, for all their rhetoric, by the established native population, they felt neither fully Caribbean nor fully British. This was the poignant outcome of what the British Black writer Caryl Phillips called The Final Passage. Phillips, who came to Britain as a baby in the late 1950s, was one of the first of his generation to grapple with the problem of finding a means of literary self-expression that was true to his experience:

The paradox of my situation is that where most immigrants have to learn a new language, Caribbean immigrants have to learn a new form of the same language. It induces linguistic schizophrenia – you have an identity crisis that mirrors the larger cultural confusion.

In his novel, The Final Passage, the narrative is in Standard English. But the speech of the characters is a rendering of nation language:

I don’t care what anyone tell you, going to England be good for it going to raise your mind. For a West Indian boy you just being there is an education, for you going see what England do for sheself… It’s a college for the West Indian.

The lesson of this college is, as Phillips puts it, that symptomatic of the colonial situation, the language has been divided as well. English – creole or standard – was the only available language in the British Black community and in the English-speaking islands of the Caribbean.

By the end of the seventies, Caribbean and Rastafarian Reggae music were beginning to have a broad impact on British pop culture. In Birmingham, a group of out-of-work young white men formed the band UB40, named after their benefit claim forms. The multicultural band Steel Pulse also became popular. On the other side of rock ‘politics’, there was an eruption of racist, skinhead rock, and a ‘casual’ but influential interest in the far right from among more established artists. At a concert at the Birmingham Odeon, in 1976, Eric Clapton, arriving on stage an hour late either drunk or stoned (or both), enquired as to whether there were any immigrants in the audience. He then said, to the shock and disgust of almost everyone there, Powell is the only bloke whose telling the truth, for the good of the country. David Bowie was also heard to flirt with far-right ideas and Sid Vicious of the punk band, The Sex Pistols, contributed the following dubious lyrics to contemporary political thought:

‘Belsen was a gas/ I read the other day/ About the open graves/ Where the Jews all lay …’

Punk gets cheeky: Vivienne Westwood (centre), Chrissie Hynde (left) and Jordan advertise Westwood’s King’s Road punk shop, Sex, in 1976.

Reacting to the surrounding mood, as well as to concerns about these deliberately outrageous statements and actions (McLaren and Westwood produced clothing with swastikas and other Nazi emblems), Rock Against Racism was formed in August 1976, organising a series of charity concerts throughout Britain and helping to create the wider Anti-Nazi League a year later. Punk bands were at the forefront of the RAR movement, above all The Clash whose lead singer Joe Strummer became more influential than Johnny Rotten and the rest of the Sex Pistols. Ska and Soul music also had a real influence in turning street culture decisively against racism. Coventry’s Ska revival band, The Specials captured and expressed this new mood. The seventies produced, in the middle of visions of social breakdown, a musical revival which reflected the reality of a lost generation, whilst in turn reviving their sense of enjoyment of life. As one contemporary cultural critic put it:

‘A lifestyle – urban, mixed, music-loving, modern and creative – had survived, despite being under threat from the NF.’

Dave Haslam (2005), Not Abba, Fourth Estate.

Punk rock was in part a reaction against growing youth unemployment and also came to symbolise a rejection of commercialism. Ironically, as with earlier youth sub-cultures, it soon became highly commercialised.

Punk rockers

The streets might be dirty and living standards falling, but by the end of the seventies, the streets were also getting safer from racist thugs and, contrary to some stereotypes, the quality of life was improving. The integration of diverse cultures and sub-cultures was working at a ‘local’ street level and in parish schools, not directed from the top down.

The arrival of Islam, Sikhism and Hinduism transformed the celebration of religious faith, including Christianity, in many schools. In 1970 there were about 300,000 Muslims in Britain. By 1990 this number had grown to one million. There were more than three hundred mosques, the largest of which was in Central London. There were also Sikh and Hindu communities, each numbering around 300,000 members. For many Christians at Advent, the school Nativity play and carol service remained the main traditions, but many schools were developing new customs and practices to ensure that pupils from a range of backgrounds and faiths were included. It was increasingly recognised that a lack of thought or sensitivity on the part of schools at this time of year could negate much of the rest of the year to improve community relations. Parents seemed to be satisfied with the diverse menu on offer. They turned up in their thousands to see their children perform in celebrations which were primarily a source of fun for all.

Above: Christmas celebrations in the Scottish Highlands and inner-city comprehensive in London. Top: at Islington Green Secondary School, pupils of all ethnicities give traditional performances and learn each other’s national dances. Bottom: Christmas decorations at Kirkton Primary School.

Economic Decline & Deindustrialisation:

A great variety of explanations for the decline in British industrial competitiveness were put forward, and have continued to be debated since. None of these explanations has proved wholly satisfactory, however. One explanation suggests that there is a cultural obstacle, that the British have been conditioned to despise industry. This might be a relevant argument to apply to a new England, with an industrial heritage going back only two or three generations, and to the old England, the traditional rural areas, although even in these areas it would be something of a stereotype, it would be difficult to apply to industrial Britain, with its generations of coal miners, shipbuilders, foundry and factory workers.

During the depression years of the 1930s many of these workers, finding themselves unemployed, had, like the father of Norman Tebbitt (Margaret Thatcher’s Party Chairman in the late seventies) got on their bikes, or walked long distances, in their hundreds of thousands to find work in the new manufacturing areas. With no jobs to find anywhere in the seventies, these were pretty pointless words of advice. Pointless or not, Tebbitt’s speech was picked up by the popular Tory press and appeared in the banner On Your Bike headlines which have since become so emblematic of the Thatcher era. Unfortunately, the same press used them to put forward a related argument that the British were not sufficiently materialistic to work hard for the rewards associated with improved productivity. Complacency from generations of national success has also been blamed, as has the Welfare State’s cosseting of both the workforce and those out of work.

Keynes’ argument had been that keeping workers in employment multiplied the effect through the economy as they spent part of their incomes on goods and services was shown to operate in the opposite direction through the effects of rising unemployment. However, the majority of people of working and voting age had no adult memory of their own of the 1930s, and radical politicians were able to exploit these demographics to their advantage to argue the case for monetarism with tight controls on public spending. In these circumstances, voters felt that spending public money on ailing industries was wasteful and inappropriate, especially as it raised their tax burden.

The story of 1970s Britain, whether viewed from an economic, social or cultural perspective can be summed up by one word, albeit a long one – deindustrialisation. As with the processes of industrialisation two centuries before, Britain led the way in what was to become a common experience of all the mature industrial nations. The so-called maturity thesis suggested that, as industries developed and became more technologically sophisticated, they required less labour. At the same time, rising living standards meant that more wealth was available, beyond what would normally be spent on basic necessities and consumer goods, giving rise to a growing demand for services such as travel, tourism and entertainment. By 1976, services had become the largest area of employment in all the regions of Britain.

Another problem faced by the manufacturing sector was the long-standing British taste for imported goods. Many observers noted that not only was the country failing to compete internationally, but British industry was also losing its cutting edge when competing with foreign imports in the domestic market. The problem of deindustrialisation, therefore, became entwined with the debate over Britain’s long decline as a trading nation, going back over a century. It was seen not only as an economic decline but as a national failure, ownership of which in speeches and election propaganda, even in education, struck deep within the collective British cultural psyche. By 1977, if not before, its role as the world’s first and leading industrial nation was finally over, just as its time as an imperial power had effectively ended fifteen years earlier, as Dean Acheson had commented. It was another question as to whether the British people and politicians were prepared to accept these salient facts and move on.

British industry’s share of world trade fell dramatically during these years, and by 1975 it was only half what it had been in the 1950s, falling to just ten per cent. Nor could it maintain its hold on the domestic market. A particularly extreme example of this was the car industry: in 1965, with Austin minis selling like hotcakes, only one car in twenty was imported, but by 1978 nearly half were. In addition, many of the staple industries of the nineteenth century, such as coal and shipbuilding, continued to decline as employers, surviving only, if at all, through nationalisation. In addition, many of the new industries of the 1930s, including the car industry, were seemingly in terminal decline by the 1970s, as we have seen in the case of Coventry. Therefore, deindustrialisation was no longer simply a problem for an old Britain, it was also one for a new England. It was even a problem for East Anglia because although it was not so dependent on manufacturing, and services were growing, agriculture had also declined considerably.

Alternatively, the government’s failure adequately to support research and development has been blamed for Britain’s manufacturing decline, together with the exclusive cultural and educational backgrounds of Westminster politicians and government ministers, and Whitehall civil servants. This exclusivity, it is argued, left them ignorant of, and indifferent to, the needs of industry. Employment in manufacturing reached a peak of nine million in 1966. After that, it fell rapidly, to four million by 1994. Much of this loss was sustained in the older industries of Northwest England, but the bulk of it was spread across the newer industrial areas of the Midlands and Southeast.

Between 1973 and 1975 there was the first of three severe recessions. When Wilson returned to number ten in February 1974, he faced a huge balance-of-payments crisis and the tumbling value of the pound. He was trying to govern without an overall majority at a time when the economy was still recovering from the effect of the oil price shock, with inflation raging and unemployment rising. Inflation reached twenty-four per cent by 1975, and it came to be seen as a far more urgent problem than unemployment. Furthermore, the fragile and implausible Social Contract now had to be tested. Almost the first thing Labour did was to settle with the miners for double what Heath had thought possible. The new Chancellor, Denis Healey, introduced an emergency Budget soon after the election, followed by another in the autumn, raising income tax to eighty-three per cent at the top rate, and ninety-eight per cent for unearned income, a level so eyewateringly high it has been used against Labour ever since. Healey also increased help for the poorest, with higher pensions and subsidies on housing and food. He was trying to deliver for the unions by upholding his side of the social contract, as was Wilson when he abolished the Tories’ employment legislation.

In October 1974, a second general election gave Labour eighteen more seats and a workable overall majority of three. Much of Healey’s energy, continuing as Chancellor, was thrown into dealing with the unstable world economy, with floating currencies and inflation-shocked governments. He continued to devalue the pound against the dollar and to tax and cut as much as he dared, but his only real hope of controlling inflation was to control wages. Wilson insisted that his income policy must be voluntary, with no return or recourse to the legal restraints of the Heath government. The unions became increasingly worried that rampant inflation might bring back the Tories. So, for a while, the Social Contract did deliver fewer strikes, which halved and halved again the following year. Contrary to popular myth, the seventies were not all about mass meetings and walk-outs. The real trouble did not begin again until the winter of 1978-79.

But the other side of the social contract was not delivered. By the early months of 1975, the going rate for increases was already thirty per cent, a third higher than inflation. By June inflation was up to twenty-three per cent, and wage settlements were even further ahead. The government then introduced an element of compulsion, but this applied to employers who offered too much, rather than to trade unions. Nevertheless, Healey reckoned that two-thirds of his time was taken up in managing the inflationary effects of free collective bargaining. In his memoirs, he reflected:

‘Adopting a pay policy is rather like jumping out of a second-floor window: no one in his senses would do it unless the stairs were on fire. But in postwar Britain the stairs have always been on fire.’

Denis Healey (1989), The Time of My Life. Michael Joseph.

Healey did, however, manage to squeeze inflation downwards. He also reflected that, had the unions kept their promises, it would have been down to single figures by the autumn of 1975. At the same time, Healey continued to tax higher earners more, concentrating tax cuts on the worse off. Though notorious (somewhat unfairly) for promising that he would make the rich howl with anguish and that he would squeeze them until the pips squeak, Healey argued that it was the only way of making the country fairer. He never accepted the Tory tenet that higher taxes stopped people from working harder and instead blamed Britain’s poor industrial performance on low investment, and poor training and management, as others have done since.

What we now know is that Wilson wasn’t planning to stay long in his second premiership. There are many separate records of his private comments about retiring at sixty, after two more years in power. If he had not privately decided that he would go in 1976, he certainly acted as if he had. The question of who would succeed him, Jenkins or Callaghan, Healey or even Benn, had become one about the direction of the Labour government, rather than a personal threat to Wilson himself, so there was less rancour around the cabinet table. He seems likely to have known about his early stages of Alzheimer’s, which would wreak a devastating time on him in retirement. He had already begun to forget facts, confuse issues and repeat himself. For a man whose memory and sharp wit had been so important, this must have taken a huge toll. It was Jim Callaghan who finally replaced Wilson at number ten after a series of votes by Labour MPs. But for three turbulent years, he ran a government with no overall majority in Parliament, kept going by a series of deals and pacts, and in an atmosphere of constant crisis.

Callaghan was the third and last of the consensus-seeking centrist PMs after Wilson and Heath, and the first postwar occupant of the office not to have gone to ‘Oxbridge.’ In fact, he had not been to university at all. The son of a Royal Navy chief petty officer who had died young and a devout Baptist mother from Portsmouth, he had known real poverty and had clawed his way up as a young clerk working for the Inland Revenue, and then as a union official, before wartime naval service. Like Healey, he was one of the 1945 generation of MPs, a young rebel who had drifted rightwards while always keeping his strong trade union instincts. He was a social conservative, uneasy about divorce, homosexuality and vehemently pro-police, pro-monarchy and pro-military. He was also anti-hanging and strongly anti-racialist. As Home Secretary, he had announced that the permissive society had gone too far. On the economy, he became steadily more impressed by monetarists like the Tory MP Keith Joseph. He told the 1976 Labour Conference, used to Keynesian doctrines about governments spending their way out of recession, …

‘… that option no longer exists and that insofar as it ever did exist, it worked by injecting inflation into the economy … Higher inflation, followed by higher unemployment. That is the history of the last twenty years.’

Yet Callaghan is forever associated with failure in the national memory. This was due to the Labour government’s cap-in-hand begging for help from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Healey had negotiated a six-pound pay limit with the unions that would eventually feed through into lower wage increases and thereby lower inflation. Cash limits brought in under Wilson would also radically cut public expenditure. But in the spring of 1976 inflation was still rampant and unemployment was rising fast. Healey told Callaghan that because of the billions spent by the Bank of England supporting sterling in the first months of the year, a loan from the IMF looked essential. In June, standby credits were arranged with the IMF and countries including the United States, Germany, Japan and Switzerland.

Healey had imposed tough cuts in the summer but by its end, the pound was under intense pressure again. On 27th September, he was meant to fly out to a Commonwealth finance ministers’ conference in Hong Kong with the Governor of the Bank of England, but so great was the crisis and so panicked were the markets that he decided he could not afford to be in the air and out of contact for so long. In full view of the television cameras, he turned around at Heathrow and headed for Treasury, where he decided to apply to the IMF for a conditional loan, one which gave authority to the international banking officials above Britain’s elected leaders. Almost simultaneously, the Ford workers went on strike. Close to a nervous breakdown, and against Callaghan’s advice, Healey decided to dash to the Labour conference in Blackpool and make his case to an angry and anguished party. Many on the left were making a strong case for a siege economy; telling the IMF to ‘get lost,’ cutting imports and nationalising swathes of industry. Given just five minutes to speak from the floor, the Chancellor warned his party that this would risk a trade war, mass unemployment and the return of a Tory government. He shouted against a rising hubbub that he would negotiate with the IMF, which would mean…

“… things we do not like as well as things we do like … it means sticking to the very painful cuts in public expenditure … it means sticking to the pay policy.

Denis Healey, Chancellor of the Exchequer during the economic storm, made a characteristic point (or two) to his opponents at the Labour conference.

So, with the cabinet watching on nervously, the negotiations started with the IMF, which insisted on severe funding cuts. Callaghan and Healey naturally wanted to limit these as far as they could, but the IMF, with the US Treasury standing behind them, was under pressure to squeeze even harder. The British were in a horribly weak position, not least because the government was riven by arguments and threats of resignation, including from Healey. The cabinet was split over what levels of cuts were acceptable and whether there was any real alternative in the form of a leftist siege economy. Callaghan and the lead IMF negotiator held private talks in which the PM warned that British democracy itself would be imperilled by mass unemployment. But the IMF was still calling for an extra billion pounds worth of cuts and it was only when Healey, without telling Callaghan, threatened the international bankers with yet another Who runs Britain? election, that they gave way. The final package of cuts was announced in Healey’s budget, severe but not as grim as some had feared, but still greeted with headlines about Britain’s shame.

As it turned out, however, the whole package was unnecessary from the start. The cash limits Healey had already imposed on Whitehall would cut spending far more effectively than anyone realised. More startling still, the public spending statistics, on which the cuts were based, and especially the estimates for borrowing, were wildly wrong. The public finances were stronger than they appeared. The IMF-directed cuts were therefore more savage than they needed to be. Britain’s balance of payment came back into balance long before the cuts could take effect and Healey reflected later that had he been given accurate forecasts in 1976, he would never have needed to go to the IMF at all. In the end, only half the loan was used, all of which was repaid before Labour left office.

Factory workers strike and picket over low pay and closures in 1977.

Following the IMF affair, the pound recovered strongly, the markets recovered, inflation fell, eventually to single figures, and unemployment fell too. But the contraction of manufacturing began to accelerate and there was a national and international swing to the right as a reaction against perceived high-taxing and high-spending governments. Demands were being made that governments cease propping up ‘lame duck’ industries with public money. Attacks on trade union power continued, coming to a head in the ‘Winter of Discontent’ of 1978-79, when there was an explosion of resentment, largely by poorly paid public employees, against a government income policy they felt was discriminatory.

Rubbish piled up in London during the ‘Winter of Discontent’ of 1978/79.

Appendix II: HRHs Prince Charles & Princess Anne – Vision & Work:

Following his Investiture as Prince of Wales, Charles was sent around the world as the heir to the throne and the House of Windsor-Mountbatten’s new star. Returning to Cambridge the following year, he finished his studies and took his bachelor’s degree.

He then went to the Royal Naval College in Dartmouth, where his mother and father had first met and where Prince Philip had trained as an officer in the Royal Navy before the Second World War. Charles also trained at the Royal Air Force College, becoming a helicopter pilot. From 1971 to 1976 he took a tour of duty in the Royal Navy. As Prince of Wales, Charles wanted to make a difference. He possessed a personal vision of harmony between human society and the natural world. He was outspoken in talking about the environment which was then viewed as being a niche interest and a marginal issue, and he was therefore seen by many as being quite eccentric. But he continued to develop his interests in gardening, sustainability and conservation, in addition to architecture, spirituality and social reform. He shared many of these interests with his father. On leaving the Navy in 1976, he founded The Prince of Wales’s Institute for Architecture and was involved with urban regeneration and development projects. He also set up The Prince’s Trust to help young people get into work and the Business in the Community scheme. In addition, he oversaw the management of the Duchy of Cornwall.

Throughout the 1970s, pressure grew on Charles to marry. He loved sports, especially playing polo, and was seen as one of the world’s most eligible bachelors, appearing on covers of magazines and tabloid newspapers, and with beautiful society women, including Camilla Shand, who later married and then divorced Andrew Parker-Bowles.

The Royal Family Tree, 1894-1990:

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Princess Anne, also known as Princess Royal, is the Queen’s only daughter. She was given this title by the Queen in 1987. She is a keen and capable horsewoman and won the European Championships in 1971. For this, she was also voted BBC Sports Personality of the Year by millions of television viewers. She represented Great Britain and Northern Ireland in the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. In 1970 she became President of the Save the Children Fund, gaining great admiration for her tireless work for her charity around the world, as seen in the photo below (the princess is in the centre, wearing a saffron top).


Andrew Marr (2007, ’08, ’09), A History of Modern Britain. Basingstoke: Pan Macmillan.

Philip Parker (2017), History of Britain in Maps. Glasgow: HarperCollins.

John Hayward & Simon Hall (eds.) (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books.

Gwyn A. Williams (1985), When Was Wales? Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

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