Majesty & Grace X: The Reign of Elizabeth Windsor – Winter of Discontent to Golden Jubilee, 1979-2002; Part 1 – Wars & Paupers.

Britain at the End of the Cold War World:
Britain, Ireland and the World, 1970-2000.

Britain had retreated from most of its empire by 1970. The only remaining colony was Rhodesia, which had been ruled by a white minority government, illegally, since 1967 and through the seventies. Britain resumed control in 1980 and the country became independent as Zimbabwe later that year. Various smaller island colonies in the Caribbean and the Pacific were granted independence in the seventies and eighties. The European Union, the Cold war and the NATO Alliance were Britain’s main concerns until 1990, while Ireland pursued a policy of neutrality. With the end of the Cold War, Britain took a more active role in Iraq, Bosnia and Kosovo. Hong Kong and its adjacent New Territories became an autonomous region of China in 1997 upon the expiry of the hundred-year lease. The removal of that colony, with its large population, enabled the British government to offer citizenship to the remaining small colonies that formed the British Overseas Territories.

A European solution, through membership of the EEC, twice vetoed by de Gaulle in the sixties, had finally been found in the early seventies under Heath and Wilson. Simultaneously, the third way, initiated in 1970 by free-enterprise, anti-collectivist Tories like Anthony Barber, Edward du Cann and Keith Joseph at the Selsdon Park conference, prepared the way for Margaret Thatcher’s attempt in the 1980s to liquidate what was left of the welfare state. Billed as a return to Victorian values, Thatcher’s Revolution was not, in fact, a return to Gladstonian liberalism, but a reversion to the hard-faced reactionary conservatism of the 1920s, leaving industries alone to survive and thrive or to go to the wall. As in the twenties, resistance to brutal rationalisation through closures and sell-offs of uneconomic nationalised enterprises, or through wage or job cuts, was met with determined opposition, which came to a head in the long-running coal dispute of 1984-85.

Britain continued to operate as a dominant centre of world finance, but even this advantage turned into a liability when the defence of the sterling forced successive governments, especially the second Wilson government, into accepting humiliating conditions, either from the United States or from the International Monetary Fund, involving deep spending cuts. The shrinkage of sovereignty accelerated, with increasing battles over the slice sizes of the ever-diminishing economic pie, fought out between unions and government. But successive governments seemed determined to keep Britain as a substantial military power with a fully funded welfare state. All the alternative models of post-imperial power applied between the sixties and the eighties ran into trouble. Relying exclusively on the United States for its nuclear defence was ruled out as anathema by both Labour and Conservatives. This was seen as an abdication, not just of great power but any power status, seeming to be a recolonisation in reverse.

The Assassination of Lord Mountbatten by the IRA, August 1979:

Of all the areas of the United Kingdom, it was Northern Ireland that continued to suffer the highest levels of unemployment in the eighties. This was mainly because the continuing sectarian violence discouraged inward investment in the six counties of the Province.

Lord Mountbatten of Burma

On August 27, 1979, in Mullaghmore, County Sligo, on the western coast of the Republic of Ireland (see the map above), a massive 50lb remote-controlled bomb exploded on board the fishing boat Shadow V, killing Lord Louis Mountbatten, his grandson and two others while they were boating on holiday off the coast. Lord Mountbatten was HM Queen Elizabeth’s second cousin and Prince Philip’s uncle. He was also, at that time, HRH Prince Charles’ great uncle, godfather and mentor. This was the height of the Provisional IRA’s bombing campaign across the British Isles.

Charles later described Lord Louis Mountbatten as the grandfather I never had. Mountbatten was a strong influence in the upbringing of his grand-nephew, and from time to time strongly upbraided the Prince for showing tendencies towards the idle pleasure-seeking dilettantism of his predecessor as Prince of Wales, King Edward VIII, whom Mountbatten had known well in their youth. Yet he also encouraged the Prince to enjoy the bachelor life while he could, and then to marry a young and inexperienced girl so as to ensure a stable married life.

Prince Charles in the late 1970s: the eligible Bachelor.

Mountbatten’s qualification for offering advice to this particular heir to the throne was unique; it was he who had arranged the visit of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth to Dartmouth Royal Naval College on 22 July 1939, taking care to include the young Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret in the invitation, but assigning his nephew, Cadet Prince Philip of Greece, to keep them amused while their parents toured the facility. This was the first recorded meeting of Charles’s future parents. But a few months later, Mountbatten’s efforts nearly came to nought when he received a letter from his sister Alice in Athens informing him that Philip was visiting her and had agreed to repatriate permanently to Greece. Within days, Philip received a command from his cousin and sovereign, King George II of Greece, to resume his naval career in Britain which, though given without explanation, the young prince obeyed.

In 1974, Mountbatten began corresponding with Charles about a potential marriage to his granddaughter, Amanda Knatchbull. It was about this time he also recommended that the 25-year-old prince get on with “sowing some wild oats”. Charles dutifully wrote to Amanda’s mother (who was also his godmother), Lady Brabourne, about his interest. Her answer was supportive but advised him that she thought her daughter was still rather young to be courted. Four years later, Mountbatten secured an invitation for himself and Amanda to accompany Charles on his planned 1980 tour of India. Their fathers promptly objected. Prince Philip also thought that the Indian public’s reception would more likely reflect a response to the uncle, the last Viceroy, than to the nephew. Lord Brabourne counselled that the intense scrutiny of the press would be more likely to drive Mountbatten’s godson and granddaughter apart than together. Charles was rescheduled to tour India alone, but Mountbatten did not live to the planned date of departure.

Mountbatten usually holidayed at his summer home, Classiebawn Castle, on the Mullaghmore Peninsula in County Sligo, in the northwest of Ireland. The village was only twelve miles from the border with County Fermanagh in Northern Ireland and near an area known to be used as a cross-border refuge by IRA members. In 1978, the IRA had allegedly attempted to shoot Mountbatten as he was aboard his boat, but poor weather had prevented the sniper from taking his shot. On 27th August 1979, Mountbatten went lobster potting and tuna fishing in his thirty-foot wooden boat, Shadow V, which had been moored in the harbour at Mullaghmore. IRA member Thomas McMahon had slipped onto the unguarded boat the previous night and attached a radio-controlled bomb weighing fifty pounds. When Mountbatten and his party had taken the boat just a few hundred yards from the shore, the bomb was detonated. The boat was destroyed by the force of the blast and Mountbatten’s legs were almost blown off. Mountbatten, then aged seventy-nine, was pulled alive from the water by nearby fishermen but died from his injuries before being brought to shore.

Also aboard the boat were Amanda Knatchbull’s elder sister Patricia, Lady Brabourne; her husband Lord Brabourne; their twin sons Nicholas and Timothy Knatchbull; Lord Brabourne’s mother Doreen, Dowager Lady Brabourne; and Paul Maxwell, a young crew member from Enniskillen in County Fermanagh. Nicholas (aged fourteen) and Paul (fifteen) were killed by the blast and the others were seriously injured. Doreen, Dowager Lady Brabourne (eighty-three), died from her injuries the following day. The attack triggered outrage and condemnation around the world. The Queen received messages of condolence from leaders including US President Jimmy Carter and Pope John Paul II. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said:

His death leaves a gap that can never be filled. The British people give thanks for his life and grieve at his passing.

Admiral of the Fleet The Right Honourable
The Earl Mountbatten of Burma
Portrait by Allan Warren, 1976

On the day of the bombing, the IRA also ambushed and killed eighteen British soldiers at the gates of Narrow Water Castle, just outside Warrenpoint, in County Down in Northern Ireland, sixteen of them from the Parachute Regiment, in what became known as the Warrenpoint ambush. It was the deadliest attack on the British Army during the Troubles. Six weeks later, Sinn Féin vice-president Gerry Adams said of Mountbatten’s death:

“The IRA gave clear reasons for the execution. I think it is unfortunate that anyone has to be killed, but the furor created by Mountbatten’s death showed up the hypocritical attitude of the media establishment. As a member of the House of Lords, Mountbatten was an emotional figure in both British and Irish politics. What the IRA did to him is what Mountbatten had been doing all his life to other people; and with his war record I don’t think he could have objected to dying in what was clearly a war situation. He knew the danger involved in coming to this country. In my opinion, the IRA achieved its objective: people started paying attention to what was happening in Ireland.”

When Charles finally proposed marriage to Amanda later in 1979, the circumstances had changed and she refused him.

The Winter of Discontent:

The winter of our discontent, a phrase from Shakespeare’s play Richard III, was used by James Callaghan, Labour Prime Minister from 1976, to describe the industrial and social chaos of 1978-79. It has stuck in people’s memories, as few economic or political events had done before or have done since. In the two years, 1977 and ’78 there was an explosion of resentment, largely by poorly paid public employees, against a minority Labour government incomes policy they felt was discriminatory. It began earlier in 1978 but got far worse with a series of strikes going into winter, resulting in rubbish being left piled up and rotting in the streets throughout the country. Added to this, the schools closed, the ports were blockaded and the dead went unburied. Left-wing union leaders and activists whipped up the disputes; individual union branches and shop stewards were reckless and heartless. Right-wing newspapers, desperate to see the end of Labour, exaggerated the effects and rammed home the picture of a nation no longer governable. The scenes on Britain’s streets provided convincing propaganda for the conservatives in the subsequent election in May 1979.

Callaghan had opposed the legal restrictions on union power pleaded for by Wilson and Castle and then fought for vainly by Heath. Healey, acting in good faith, had imposed a more drastic squeeze on public spending and thus on the poorest families than had been economically necessary. They had also tried to impose an unreasonably tough new income policy on the country. Finally, by dithering about the date of the general election, he destroyed whatever fragile calm he had managed to establish and enjoy since he had taken over from Wilson. Most observers and members of the cabinet assumed that Callaghan would call an autumn election in 1978. The economic news was still good and Labour was ahead in the polls. Two dates in October had already been pencilled in, but musing on his Sussex farm during the summer, Callaghan decided that he did not trust the polls. He decided to wait until the following spring. But when he invited a dozen trade union leaders to his farm to discuss the decision, they left still thinking he was going in the autumn. But then, at the beginning of autumn, at the TUC conference, he confused the issue even more with a bizarre rendition of an old music hall concert, leaving his audience to interpret its meaning. When he finally came clean with the cabinet, they were shocked.

This might not have mattered so much had Callaghan also not promised a new five per cent pay limit to bring down inflation further. As a result of the 1974-75 cash limit on pay rises at a time of high inflation, take-home pay for most people had been falling ever since. Public sector workers, in particular, had been having a hard time, and there were stories of fat cat directors and bosses awarding themselves high settlements. The union leaders and many ministers thought that a further period of pay limits would be impossible for them to sell to their members, while a five per cent limit, was widely considered to be ludicrously tough. Had Callaghan gone to the country in October, Labour’s popularity among the general electorate might have been boosted by the pay restraint policy. But by postponing the election until the spring, Callaghan ensured that the five per cent limit would be tested in Britain’s increasingly impatient and dangerous industrial relations environment. The first challenge came from the fifty-seven thousand car workers employed by the US giant Ford. The TGWU called for a thirty per cent pay rise, on the back of high profits and an eighty per cent rise for its chairman and directors. Callaghan was severely embarrassed and when, after five weeks of lost production, Ford eventually settled for seventeen per cent, he became convinced that he would lose the coming election.

Oil tanker drivers, also TGWU members, came out for forty per cent, followed by haulage drivers, British Leyland workers, and then sewerage workers. BBC electricians threatened a blackout of Christmas TV. The docks were picketed and closed down with Hull, virtually cut off, becoming known as the second Stalingrad. The effects of this were being felt by government ministers as well as the rest of the country. Bill Rodgers, the transport minister, whose mother was dying of cancer, found that vital chemotherapy chemicals were not being allowed out of Hull. In the middle of all this, Callaghan went to an international summit in the Caribbean, from where the pictures of him swimming and sunning himself did not improve the mood back home. When he returned to Heathrow, confronted by news reporters asking about the industrial crisis, he replied blandly, “I don’t think other people in the world will share the view that there is mounting chaos.” This was famously translated into the Daily Mail’s headline, ‘Crisis? What Crisis?’


Above: Rubbish is left piled up in London’s Leicester Square in February 1979

In the centre of London and other major cities, huge piles of rotting rubbish piled up, overrun with rats and becoming a serious health hazard. Most of those striking among the public sector workers were badly paid and living in relative poverty, also having no history of industrial militancy. Nor was the crisis quite as bad as the media portrayed it. There were no deaths in hospitals as a result of union action, there was no shortage of food in the shops and there was no violence. Troops were never used. This was chaos and a direct threat to the authority of the government, but it was not a revolutionary situation, or even an attempt to overthrow a particular government. Yet that was the effect it had, and it led to what was to become Thatcherism, not socialism. A ‘St Valentine’s Day Concordat’ was eventually reached between the government and the TUC, which agreed on annual assessments and guidance, targeting long-term inflation and virtually admitting that the five per cent pay limit had been a mistake. By March most of the action had ended and various large settlements and inquiries had been set up. But by then irreparable damage had already been done to the Labour Government’s reputation as a manager of industrial disputes.

The St David’s Day Devolution Debácle & General Election of 1979:

When the matter of devolution was put to the Welsh electorate in a referendum on St. David’s Day, 1979, it voted overwhelmingly against the planned assembly, by 956,000 votes to 243,000. Every one of the relatively new Welsh counties voted ‘No’. The supporters were strongest in the north-west (Gwynedd), at twenty-two per cent of those voting and weakest in Glamorgan and Gwent at seven to eight per cent, but everywhere there was a crushing rejection of the Labour government’s proposal; only some twelve per cent voted in favour overall. The narrow failure of the Scottish referendum due to the forty per cent clause meant that under previously agreed rules, the Devolution Act setting up a Scottish Assembly had to be repealed. In the Commons, the government was running out of allies. There was therefore no longer any reason for the SNP to continue supporting the Labour government. Plaid Cymru, unlike the SNP, did not call on its MPs to vote to bring about the end of the government. As dying MPs were carried through the lobbies to keep the sinking Labour ship afloat. Michael Foot and the Labour whips continued to try to find any kind of majority, appealing to renegade Scots, Ulster Unionists and Irish nationalists simultaneously but Callaghan, by now, was in a calmly fatalistic mood. He did not want to struggle on through another summer and autumn in the hope that something would turn up.

Finally, on 28th March, the government was defeated by a single vote, and Callaghan became the first Prime Minister since Ramsay MacDonald in 1924 to have to go to Buckingham Palace and ask for a dissolution of parliament because he had lost a vote in the Commons. The election campaign began after the IRA’s assassination of Mrs Thatcher’s leadership campaign manager, Airey Neave, murdered by a Provisional IRA car bomb on his way to the Commons. Thatcher took on Callaghan, who was still more popular than his party and who now emphasised stable prices and his new deal with the unions. Thatcher showed a fresh, authentic face in the media, working with television news teams and taking the advice of advertising gurus, like the Saatchi brothers. Using the slogan Labour isn’t working, which appeared on huge hoardings showing long dole queues, the Tories came back to power with a clear and substantial majority with 339 seats. In the General Election, the Conservatives took sixty-one seats directly from Labour and gained nearly forty-three per cent of the vote.

At a time of heavy swings to the Tories everywhere, the heaviest swings of all, outside London, was in Wales, and in every part of Wales. More Tory MPs were returned in Wales than at any previous twentieth-century election, eleven in all. Nevertheless, Labour remained a massive presence, with twenty-one seats out of thirty-six and forty-seven per cent of the vote compared with thirty-two per cent for the Conservatives. In June, in the heartland of Labourism, there was also a heavy vote against the European Common Market. In the General Election of May, Wales located itself firmly in the political South of Britain, rather than its traditional role as a Northern Labour stronghold. What had happened was that a third challenger had bypassed the old debates and left Labour and Plaid Cymru gasping. The latter’s President, Gwynfor Evans, came third behind the Tory in Carmarthen, and a Sussex solicitor ‘parachuted’ onto Anglesey, Mother of Wales, to win the seat ahead of both Labour and Nationalist parties with a swing of twelve per cent. The Tories also ended generations of Liberal predominance in Montgomeryshire. Even in Labour’s industrial heartlands of the southern valleys, the swing to the Conservatives was the second strongest in Britain.

One effect of this abrupt reversal of a hundred years of history was to equally abruptly cut off an intelligentsia from its people. The ‘professional’ Welsh, blinded by their own desires, had misread Wales very badly in the 1970s. In the 1980s, historians Gwyn Williams (right) and Dai Smith (below) argued that the reasons for this were as much sociological as ideological. The decline of the Welsh coalfields entailed a withering of major political and cultural energies. History had been wilfully redefined so that it stood only as a commentary on what might, or should, have been.

Both Smith and Williams recognised that a more pragmatic, economic nationalism was on offer from the ‘National Left’ of Plaid Cymru, which took a libertarian socialist stance and tried to establish links with ecological, peace and feminist groups. Nevertheless, the broad understanding behind the resurgence of political, cultural and linguistic nationalism remained the same, implicitly, as it had been, explicitly in the 1920s and 30s: The prevailing theory endured from that original period that the anglicisation of Wales was an avoidable disaster because the industrialisation of Wales had replaced the pure ‘old Welsh collier’ population with a conglomeration of ‘half-people,’ the Cymry di-Gymraeg (‘the Welsh without Welsh’).

Of course, by the mid-1970s, Plaid Cymru was no longer advocating, with the cold logic of Saunders Lewis, the deindustrialisation of Wales. In any case, this was something that was to be largely accomplished by the Thatcher government after 1979, though for very different reasons. In the twenty years previous to 1979, what had been stressed by cultural and political nationalists was the extent to which the modern experience of Wales had been a ‘fall from grace.’ Even in the eighties, many traditional nationalists did still believe that Wales could only be saved through the restoration of the old ‘Welsh’ values, delivered by the vehicle of the ancient Welsh language, albeit in ‘living’ form. But by then, the votes of 1979 had already dramatically registered the end of an epoch in Wales in which intellectuals – liberal, nationalist and labourist – had articulated the consciousness of various social groups and classes in Welsh society.

After the Spring of 1979, managerial and administrative groups in Wales became increasingly integrated into broader, technocratic European contexts, without any specifically Welsh content. The most visible and creative formers of educated opinion among the Welsh were rejected by their people and viewed as irrelevant. Old Labourism in Wales, along with Gwynfor Evans’s Nationalism and Lloyd George’s Liberalism were all effectively dead. Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock (above) tried hard to resurrect the Bevanite tradition across Wales and England, supported by the Tribune Left in the early eighties, but they ultimately failed to provide an Alternative Economic Strategy to that of Thatcherism in the three successive general elections. Mrs Thatcher herself had an acronym for her monetarist policies, TINA (There is no alternative). Dai Smith summed up the extent to which the cultural battlefield had already shifted, writing in 1984:

Wales in the 1980s has become its own industry. … The production of history in Wales is now a battleground on which rival armies contend to dispel the confusion. … What we are witnessing is the invoking of the Welsh past in the disputed name of the Welsh future. … Social history that dips a toe in national waters is invariably accused of polluting intent. The purity of emotion is defiled. … for the Wales that is projected to the outside world is not a Wales most of the Welsh know or recognise as anything of their own. Perhaps our ambivalent condition is exemplary after all. We are already a long way down the road which England… has just begun to contemplate. After all, England, too, is a country of the mind.

Dai Smith (1984), Wales! Wales? Hemel Hempstead: George Allen & Unwin, pp. 165-68.

The Breaking of Consensus, Blitz on Jobs & Wales in the Wilderness:

Meanwhile, the players in the last act of Old British Labour and the broken post-war Consensus stumbled on. Callaghan continued as Labour leader until retiring in October 1980. Michael Foot took over as Labour leader after a contest with Denis Healey, who then fought a desperate struggle against Tony Benn and the Left to become Deputy leader, as his party did its best to commit suicide in public. Numerous moderates formed the breakaway SDP. The Scottish Nationalists, derided by Callaghan for voting him down as “turkeys voting for Christmas” lost eleven of their thirteen MPs. The unions lost almost half their members and any real political influence they briefly held.

More important than all that, mass unemployment would return to Britain. It was the one economic medicine so bitter that no minister in the seventies, Labour or Tory, had dared to uncork it, until those of the Thatcher government. In the election campaign, Margaret Thatcher promised a return to the values which had made Victorian Britain great. However, what the British people got was more of a return to the hard-nosed Toryism of the interwar years as the Thatcher government set about the task of deliberately lengthening those dole queues. As wage rises were believed to be the main source of inflation and heavy unemployment, it was often openly argued, would weaken trade union bargaining power, and was a price worth paying. At the same time, an economic squeeze was introduced, involving heavy tax increases and a reduction in public borrowing to deflate the economy, thus reducing both demand and employment. In the 1980s, two million manufacturing jobs disappeared, most of them by 1982.

When Thatcher took on the moderate ‘wets’ in her cabinet, including Jim Prior (bottom of the cartoon), she could rely on the support of much of the press.

Almost immediately after the general election, Wales was fully exposed to the Conservative crusade and the radical restructuring of increasingly multinational capitalism in Britain. The Welsh working population reached a peak in 1979 when just over a million people were at work, fifty-five per cent of them in the service sector and forty-two per cent of them women in the core industries. The run-down of the coal industry continued and was followed by a sharp reduction in steel. A Guardian columnist wrote that, in economic terms, every time England catches a cold, Wales gets influenza. Between June 1980 and June 1982, the official working population fell by no fewer than 106,000. The most catastrophic losses were in steel which lost half its workers and plummeted to 38,000. In addition, there were heavy losses in chemicals, textiles, engineering, construction and general manufacturing. The distributive trades, transport and communications also shed thousands of jobs. Public administration lost proportionately fewer, while a whole range of services in insurance, banking, entertainment, leisure, education and medical services gained four thousand workers.

By June 1983 the official working population of Wales was at 882,000, its lowest level in modern times. There was a high level of unemployment, particularly among a whole generation of young people. In the Thatcher years Wales, like Scotland, was dominated by the politics of resistance to Conservatism, but the Wales TUC was weakened by losing numbers and funds, seemingly incapable of adequate adjustment and response. Overall, the organised trade union movement seemed encased in a perception of a Welsh working class which had become a myth. There was a People’s March for Jobs, but it was a pale imitation not just of previous mass demonstrations in the valleys, but even of the contemporary ones in England. The exceptions were, again, the successful strikes and campaigns against closures by the South Wales Miners (South Wales Area, NUM) in 1981-82, but even there, the question was being asked at public meetings, Have the Miners Really Won? The answer came in 1984, by which time they were gaining support, and preparing to fight a struggle as hard and as dedicated as any in their history.

Meanwhile, much radical energy went into CND mass meetings and protests, which acquired much more weight across south Wales and the valleys, from Monmouthshire to Carmarthenshire. The protest camp at the Greenham Common missile base was started by a march of women from Cardiff. Around the language issue, the clamour and turmoil revived and continued in the campaign for the Welsh-medium television channel, S4C. Among Welsh nationalist students, support for constitutional nationalism plummeted after the Referendum result and calls for more radical direct action multiplied for the first time since the Investiture Crisis of 1969 and the botched bombing of Caernarfon Castle. This action was largely limited to student members of Cymdeithas yr Iaith (Welsh Language Society) climbing transmitter masts and smashing old television sets at the National Eisteddfod. The friction between Welsh-speaking and English-speaking students led to a division in the student unions in both Bangor and Aberystwyth, allowing right-wing English conservatives to take control. Using Gandhian tactics, Gwynfor Evans, having stood down as President of the Plaid Cymru, began a lengthy hunger strike to secure the Fourth Channel in Welsh, which was eventually launched, by Superted, the cartoon character, in the late summer of 1982.

In 1981, after a successful campaign to establish a fourth television channel in Welsh, Gwynfor Evans (left) stood down as Plaid Cymru President after thirty-six years, to be replaced by Dafydd Wigley, MP for Caernarfon (right).

There was also a no far more sinister campaign led by the shadowy organisations, Meibion Glyndwr (Sons of Glyndwr) and The Workers’ Army of the Welsh Republic (the Welsh initials spelling ‘Dawn’), which apparently acquired weapons from the former Official IRA. A major campaign of arson began in 1980, against holiday homes throughout western Wales, where passive support from local people went under the humourous slogan Strike a Light for Wales above a picture of an ‘England’s Glory’ matchbox. A major police action was launched by Gwynedd and Dyfed-Powys police forces, Operation Tán (Fire), producing a chorus of complaints over violations of civil rights, telephone tapping and the use of agents provocateurs. Several police officers were accused of fabricating evidence and confessions and of trying to falsely implicate the Meirionydd MP Dafydd Elis Thomas in a bombing campaign against military, government and Conservative Party offices.

The Iron Lady on manoeuvres with a tank, union flag and Prince of Wales’s feathers. By 1983, she had well and truly parked her tank on the green, green grass of Wales, and was at the peak of her powers throughout the United Kingdom.
Sacrificing the Young – the Case of Coventry in the Recession:

In Coventry, nearly sixty thousand jobs were lost in this period of recession from 1979 to 1983. The Conservative policy of high-interest rates tended to overvalue the pound, particularly in the USA, the major market for Coventry’s specialist cars, leading to a rapid decline in demand. Also, the Leyland management embarked on a new rationalisation plan. The company’s production was to be concentrated at its Cowley and Longbridge plants. Triumph production was transferred to Cowley, and Rover models were to be produced at the new Solihull plant. The Coventry engine plant at Courthouse Green was closed and Alvis, Climax and Jaguar were sold off to private buyers. In the first three years of the Thatcher government, the number of Leyland employees in the city fell from twenty-seven thousand to eight thousand. One writer summarised the effects of Conservative policy on Coventry in these years as turning a process of gentle decline into a quickening collapse. Overall the city’s top manufacturing firms shed thirty-one thousand workers between 1979 and 1982. Well-known pillars of Coventry’s economic base such as Herbert’s, Triumph Motors and Renold’s all disappeared. Unemployment had stood at just five per cent in 1979, the same level as in 1971. By 1982 it had risen to sixteen per cent.


None of this had been expected locally when the Thatcher government came to power. After all, Coventry had prospered reasonably well during the previous Tory administrations. The last real boom in the local economy had been stimulated by the policies of Ted Heath’s Chancellor, Anthony Barber. However, the brakes were applied rather than released by the new government. Monetarist policies were quick to bite into the local industry. Redundancy lists and closure notices in the local press became as depressingly regular as the obituary column. The biggest surprise was the lack of resistance from the local Labour movement, given Coventry’s still formidable trade union movement. There was an atmosphere of bewilderment and an element of resignation characterised in the responses of many trades-union officials. It was as if the decades of anti-union editorials in the Coventry Evening Telegraph were finally being realised.

There were signs of resistance at Longbridge, but the British Leyland boss, Michael Edwardes, had introduced a tough new industrial relations programme which had seen the removal from the plant of the union convenor, Red Robbo (Derek Robinson)Britain’s strongest motor factory trade union leader. Edwardes had also closed the Speke factory on Merseyside, demonstrating that he could and would close plants in the face of trade union opposition. Coventry’s car workers and their union leaders had plenty of experience in local wage bargaining in boom times but lacked strategies to resist factory closures during the recession. Factory occupation, imitating its successful use on the continent, had been tried at the Meriden Triumph Motorcycle factory, but with disastrous results. The opposition from workers was undoubtedly diminished by redundancy payments which in many cases promised to cushion families for a year or two from the still unrealised effects of the recession.

Above: Employment levels in Coventry to 1981, showing a sharp decline after 1979.

As experienced in Wales, young people were the real victims of these redundancies, as there were now no places or apprenticeships for them to fill. The most depressing feature of Coventry’s unemployment was that the most severely affected were the teenagers leaving the city’s newly-completed network of Community Comprehensives. As the recession hit the city, many of them joined the job market only to find that expected opportunities in the numerous factories had evaporated. By June 1980, forty-six per cent of the city’s sixteen to eighteen-year-olds were seeking employment and over half of the fourteen thousand who had left school the previous year were still unemployed. Much prized craft apprenticeships all but vanished and only ninety-five apprentices commenced training in 1981. In 1981-2, the Local Authority found posts for some 5,270 youths on training courses, work experience and community projects, but with limited long-term effects.

The early 1980s were barren years for Coventry youngsters, despite the emergence of their own sca group, The Specials, and their own theme song, Ghost Town, which also gave vent to what was becoming a national phenomenon. The lyric’s sombre comparison of boom time and bust was felt much more sharply in Coventry than elsewhere. Coventry paid a very heavy price in the 1980s for its over-commitment to the car industry, suffering more than nearby Midland towns such as Leicester and Nottingham, both of which had broader-based economies. Its peculiar dependence on manufacturing and its historically weak tertiary sector meant that it was a poor location for the so-called sunrise industries. These were high-tech enterprises, based largely along the axial belt running from London to Slough, Reading and Swindon, so they had an insignificant initial impact on unemployment in Coventry and other Midland and Northern industrial centres. The growth in service industries was also, initially at least, mainly to the benefit of the traditional administrative centres, such as Birmingham, rather than to its West Midland neighbours.

While little development work took place in local factories, Nissan recruited hundreds of foremen from Coventry for its new plant in Sunderland, announced before the Thatcher government, and Talbot removed its Whitley research and development facility to Paris in 1983, along with its French-speaking Coventrians. Only at Leyland’s Canley site did research provide a service for plants outside the city. For the first time in a hundred years, Coventry had become a net exporter of labour. By the time of the 1981 Census, the city had already lost 7.5 per cent of its 1971 population. The main losses were among the young skilled and technical management sectors, people who any town or city can ill afford to lose. Summing up the city’s position at this time, Lancaster and Mason (see source list) emphasised the dramatic transition in its fortunes from boomtown, a magnet for labour from the depressed areas, to a depressed district itself:

Coventry in the mid 1980s displays more of the confidence in the future that was so apparent in the immediate post-war years. The city, which for four decades was the natural habitat of the affluent industrial worker is finding it difficult to adjust to a situation where the local authority and university rank amongst the largest employers. Coventry’s self-image of progressiveness and modernity has all but vanished. The citizens now largely identify themselves and their environment as part of depressed Britain.  

The Falklands Factor – War in the South Atlantic:

One of the many ironies of the Thatcher story is that she was rescued from the political consequences of her monetarism by the blunders of her hated Foreign Policy. In the great economic storms of 1979-81, and on the European budget battle, she had simply charged ahead, ignoring all the flapping around her in pursuit of a single goal. In the South Atlantic, she would do exactly the same and with her good luck, she was vindicated. Militarily, it could so easily have all gone wrong, and the Falklands War could have been a terrible disaster, confirming the Argentinian dictatorship in power in the South Atlantic and ending Margaret Thatcher’s career after just one term as Prime Minister. Of all the gambles in modern British politics, the sending of a task force of ships from the shrunken and underfunded Royal Navy eight thousand miles away to take a group of islands by force was one of the most extreme.

On both sides, the conflict derived from colonial quarrels, dating back to 1833, before the reign of Queen Victoria began, when the scattering of islands had been declared a British colony. In Buenos Aires, a newly installed ‘junta’ under General Leopoldo Galtieri was heavily dependent on the Argentine navy, itself passionately keen on taking over the islands, known in Argentina as the Malvinas. The following year would see the 150th anniversary of ‘British ownership’ which the Argentines feared would be used to reassert the Falklands’ British future. The junta misread Whitehall’s lack of policy for lack of interest and concluded that an invasion would be easy, popular and impossible to reverse. In March an Argentine ship tested the waters by landing on South Georgia, a small dependency south of the Falklands, disembarking scrap-metal dealers. Then on 1 April, the main invasion began, a landing by Argentine troops which had been carefully prepared for by local representatives of the national airline. In three hours it was all over, and the eighty British marines surrendered, having killed five Argentine troops and injured seventeen with no losses of their own.

In London, there was mayhem. Thatcher had had a few hours’ warning of what was happening from the Defence Secretary, John Nott. Calling a hurried meeting in her Commons office, Sir John Leach gave her clarity and hope, when her ministers were as confused as she was. He told her he could assemble a task force of destroyers, frigates and landing craft, led by Britain’s two remaining aircraft carriers. It could be ready to sail within forty-eight hours and the islands could be retaken by force. She told him to go ahead. Soon after, the Foreign Secretary, Peter Carrington, tended his resignation, accepting responsibility for the Foreign Office’s failings. But Margaret Thatcher was confronted by a moral question which she could not duck, which was that many healthy young men were likely to die or be horribly injured in order to defend the ‘sovereignty’ of the Falkland Islanders. In the end, almost a thousand died, one for every two islanders and many others were maimed and psychologically wrecked.

In the cabinet and the Commons, Thatcher argued that the whole structure of national identity and international law was at stake. Michael Foot, who had been bellicose in parliament at first, harking back to the appeasement of fascism in the thirties, urged her to find a diplomatic answer. Later she insisted that she was vividly aware of the blood price that was waiting and not all consumed by lust for conflict. Thatcher had believed from the start that caving in would finish her. The press, like the Conservative Party itself, was seething about the original diplomatic blunders. As it happened, the Argentine junta, even more belligerent, ensured that a serious deal was never properly put. They simply insisted that the British Task Force be withdrawn from the entire area and that Argentine representatives should take part in any interim administration and that if talks failed Britain would simply lose sovereignty. The reality, though, was that their political position was even weaker than hers. She established a small war cabinet and the Task Force, now up to twenty vessels strong was steadily reinforced. Eventually, it comprised more than a hundred ships and twenty-five thousand men. The world was both transfixed and bemused.

The Empire struck back, and by the end of the month South Georgia was recaptured and a large number of Argentine prisoners taken: Thatcher urged questioning journalists outside Number Ten simply to ‘rejoice, rejoice!’ Then came one of the most controversial episodes in the short war. A British submarine, The Conqueror, was following the ageing but heavily armed cruiser, the Belgrano. The British task force was exposed and feared a pincer movement, although the Belgrano was later found to have been outside an exclusion zone announced in London, and streaming away from the fleet. With her military commanders at Chequers, Thatcher authorised the submarine attack. The Belgrano was sunk, with the loss of 321 sailors. The Sun newspaper carried the headline ‘Gotcha!’ Soon afterwards, a British destroyer was hit by an Argentine Exocet missile and later sunk. Forty died.

On 18 May 1982, the war cabinet agreed that landings on the Falklands should go ahead, despite the lack of full air cover and worsening weather. By landing at the unexpected bay of San Carlos in low clouds, British troops got ashore in large numbers. Heavy Argentine air attacks, however, took a serious toll. Two frigates were badly damaged, another was sunk, then another, then a destroyer, then a container ship with vital supplies. Nevertheless, three thousand British troops secured a beachhead and began to fight their way inland. Over the next few weeks, they captured the settlements of Goose Green and Darwin, killing 250 Argentine soldiers and capturing 1,400 for the loss of twenty British lives. Colonel ‘H’ Jones became the first celebrated hero of the conflict when he died leading ‘2 Para’ against heavy Argentine fire.

The Royal Marines ‘yomp’ towards Port Stanley during the Falklands War, June 1982

The battle then moved to the tiny capital, Port Stanley, or rather to the circle of hills around it where the Argentine army was dug in. Before the final assault on 8 June, two British landing ships, Sir Tristram and Sir Galahad were hit by missiles and the Welsh Guards suffered dreadful losses, many of the survivors being badly burned. Simon Weston was one of them. Out of his platoon of thirty men, twenty-two were killed. The Welsh Guards lost a total of forty-eight men killed and ninety-seven wounded aboard the Sir Galahad. Weston survived with forty-six per cent burns, following which his face was barely recognisable. He recalled:

Simon Weston in 2008

“My first encounter with a really low point was when they wheeled me into the transit hospital at RAF Lyneham and I passed my mother in the corridor and she said to my gran, “Oh mam, look at that poor boy” and I cried out “Mam, it’s me!” As she recognised my voice her face turned to stone.”

Simon Weston later became a well-known spokesman and charity worker for his fellow injured and disabled veterans. The Queen’s second son, Prince Andrew, Duke of York, also saw active service in the Falklands War, as a helicopter pilot. For millions around the world, however, the War seemed a complete anachronism, a Victorian gunboat war in a nuclear age. But for millions in Britain, it served as a wholly unexpected and almost mythic symbol of rebirth. Margaret Thatcher herself lost no time in telling the whole country what she thought the war meant. It was more than simply a triumph of freedom and democracy over the Argentinian dictatorship. Speaking at Cheltenham racecourse in early July, she said:

We have ceased to be a nation in retreat. We have instead a newfound confidence, born in the economic battles at home and found true eight thousand miles away … Printing money is no more. Rightly this government has abjured it. Increasingly the nation won’t have it … That too is part of the ‘Falklands factor.’ … Britain found herself again in the South Atlantic and will not look back from the victory she has won. 

A 1982 cartoon: Britain was at war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands. The inhabitants of the islands, a dependent territory of the United Kingdom, wanted to remain under British rule, but Argentina invaded.

Of course, the Falklands War fitted into Margaret Thatcher’s personal narrative and merged into a wider sense that confrontation was required in public life and the country’s politics. Thatcher was victorious, but it was a costly war for the British. Across Wales, for example, where the atmosphere was already becoming unpleasant in many respects, the impact was direct, especially relating to the disaster which befell the Welsh Guards at Bluff Cove, but also in anxieties over the Welsh communities in Patagonia in Argentina, who, like the Falklanders, had formed their colonies there in the nineteenth century. Despite opposition to the War from Plaid Cymru, a traditional pacifist party, there is little doubt that the War gave the same impetus to British patriotism, and chauvinism, and to the Conservatives, as it did in other parts of Britain. The Tories had looked destined for defeat in the 1983 General Election, but following the Falklands War, the Iron Lady, also variously characterised as Boadicea (Boudicca) and Britannia, swept back to power on a tidal wave of revived jingoistic imperialism. Even in Labour heartlands, such as south Wales, the Tories made more major gains.

The Demise of the Heartlands & Death of ‘Old King Coal’, 1983-87:

As the general election loomed, with Labour in visible disarray, and with the appreciably calamitous effects of the Tory policies on the Welsh economy, it was on the left wing of the national movement that awareness of the bankruptcy of traditional political attitudes seem to have registered. However, in the Wales of 1983, these could only be marginal movements. The great majority of the Welsh electorate remained locked within what was now essentially an unholy trinity of parties. The General Election of 1983 exposed the myth that the South Welsh valleys were still some kind of ‘heartland’ of Labour; it registered even more visibly than 1979 had done, Wales’s presence within the South of Britain in terms of political geography. In Wales as a whole, the Labour vote fell by nearly ten per cent, a fall exceeded only in East Anglia and the South East; it ran level with London again. The Conservative vote fell by only twenty-four thousand (1.7 per cent), whereas the Labour vote fell by over 178,000. The great beneficiaries were the Liberal-SDP alliance, whose vote rocketed by over two hundred thousand.

The Conservatives took the Cardiff West seat of George Thomas, the former Speaker, and the marginal seat of Bridgend, swept most of Cardiff and again pressed very hard throughout the rural west, ending up with thirteen seats out of thirty-eight. Plaid Cymru held its two seats in the northwest and moved into second place on Anglesey. It also registered significant votes in Carmarthen, Caerphilly, Ceredigion, Llanelli and the Rhondda. The success of the Liberal-SDP Alliance was spectacular. It more than doubled the former Liberal poll, reaching twenty-three per cent of the Welsh electorate, won two seats and came second in nineteen out of thirty-eight. Labour’s defeat came close to becoming a rout, but the party managed to retain a score of seats despite dropping nearly ten per cent in the poll. It was now a minority party again, at its lowest level since 1918. It held on by the skin of its teeth in Carmarthen and to Wrexham, a former stronghold. Even in the coalfield valleys, where it held all but one of its seats, six became three-way marginals without an overall majority. The Alliance came second in ten, and in the Rhondda won eight thousand votes without even campaigning. Only seven seats remained with overall Labour majorities, and only three of the old twenty-thousand majorities were left: Rhondda, Merthyr Tydfil and Ebbw Vale (Blaenau Gwent). Looking ahead (from c 1984), Gwyn A. Williams wrote that Wales was becoming…

… a country which largely lives by the British State, whose input into it is ten per cent of its gross product, faces a major reconstruction of the public sector; … faces the prospect of a new depression or a recovery, either of which will intensify the process… faces the prospect of a large and growing population which will be considered redundant in a state which is already considering a major reduction in the financial burden of welfare.

Small wonder that some, looking ahead, see nothing but a nightmare vision of a depersonalised Wales which has shrivelled up into a Costa Bureaucratic in the south and a Costa Geriatrica in the north; in between, sheep, holiday homes burning merrily away and fifty folk museums where there used to be communities … the majority of the inhabitants are choosing a British identity which seems to require the elimination of a Welsh one.


Striking Yorkshire miners barrack moderate union leaders in Sheffield.

The government then took a more confrontational approach at home. As in the 1920s, resistance to brutal rationalisation through the closure or selling off of uneconomic enterprises, or by wage or job reductions, was met by determined opposition, never tougher than in the confrontation of 1984-85 with the National Union of Mineworkers, led by Arthur Scargill. The National Coal Board, supported by the government, put forward a massive programme of pit closures. The bitter, year-long miners’ strike which followed was roundly defeated, amid scenes of mass picketing and some violence from both miners and the police. The miners’ strike was long and bitter, a fight for the survival of coalfield communities. For example, during the late nineteenth and for most of the twentieth century, Armthorpe in South Yorkshire became known for its coal mining and a deep seam colliery was sunk; the pit was named Markham Main. In 1984, an Armthorpe dress shop sales assistant was quoted as saying:

“If this pit closed down, the whole village would close down because of the number of men working there. This shop and a lot of other shops would have to close down.”

Markham Main Colliery: After the closure of the mine in 1996 the area went through a deep depression. The old colliery site is now a large housing estate, with a thriving community and parks and tracks for walking and cycling to the local wood. Today, Armthorpe remains one of the more affluent areas of Doncaster, with an IKEA warehouse providing local employment. Photo (circa 1980?) by Chris Allen, CC BY-SA 2.0,

But ultimately the government proved equally determined and had, crucially, built up the resources to resist their anticipated demands for it to back down. In 1983, a team of researchers in south Wales published a pamphlet, Who Profits from Coal? revealing that not only had the NCB been importing stocks of South African coal for some years, but that it was also investing in its production, even raiding the miners’ pension fund to do so. There were also major divisions within the NUM itself, with the Nottinghamshire area breaking away to form the UDM (Union of Democratic Mineworkers) and the South Wales area calling for an orderly return to work when it became apparent that the NUM could not win. However, the national executive, led by its president, Arthur Scargill, refused to call a country-wide ballot on this proposal, prolonging the struggle and suffering unnecessarily.

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Miners’ leader, Arthur Scargill.

The strike and the colliery closures left a legacy of bitterness and division in British which was only too apparent at the time of Margaret Thatcher’s recent state funeral and is the subject or background for many recent films, some of which have distorted or trivialised our recollection of the reality. Among the better representations of it is Billy Elliott. Under the thirty years rule, the government documents from 1984 have only just become available, so we can now look forward to the more rounded perspectives of historians on these events. Already, politicians have called for government apologies to be given to the miners and their families.

Picketing miners were caught and hand-cuffed to lamp posts by police in 1986.

In the Durham Coalfield, pits were often the only real source of employment in local communities, so the economic and social impact of closures could be devastating. The 1984-5 Strike was an attempt to force a reversal of the decline. The pit closures went ahead and the severe contraction of the mining industry continued: it vanished altogether in Kent, while in Durham two-thirds of the pits were closed. The government had little interest in ensuring the survival of the industry, determined to break its militant and well-organised union. There was further resistance, as pictured above, but by 1987, the initial programme of closures was complete. The social cost of the closures, especially in places in which mining was the single major employer, as in many of the pit villages of South Yorkshire, Durham and the valleys of south Wales, was devastating. The entire local economy was crippled. On Tyneside and Merseyside, more general deindustrialisation occurred. Whole sections of industry, including coal, steel and shipbuilding, simply vanished from their traditional areas.


(to be continued)

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