As a companion piece to my Top 10 Political Misjudgements, here are what I consider to be the Top 10 Political Turning Points of my lifetime. With the exception of Black Wednesday, which stemmed directly from the misjudgement over the rate at which we entered the ERM, most of these were either random acts of chance which politicians were helpless to deal with - "events, dear boy, events" as Harold Macmillan called them - or, as in the case of the Falklands War or Denis Healey's defeat of Tony Benn, acts of political courage which succeeded in changing the course of history. Will Gordon Brown's election-that-wasn't eventually join the list? Come back here in two years' time and I'll tell you!
1 The Winter of Discontent, 1978
Modern political history turns on the question of what would have happened had Margaret Thatcher never become Prime Minister. We would now be living in a quite different country, a less prosperous one maybe, but a more civilised one too. It was the industrial chaos of 1978-79 that paved the way not just for her election victory, but for the whole tenor of her premiership. Outgoing PM Jim Callaghan captured the shift in public mood in his famous comment "I believe that there is now such a [sea] change - and it is for Mrs Thatcher."
2 England 2 Germany 3, 1970
Or was it the balance of trade figures that were to blame? Either way, days later Harold Wilson lost an election he was universally expected to win, and this proved to be the pivot on which the subsequent history of the 1970s, and arguably also the future of the Labour Party turned. Had Wilson won in 1970, Roy Jenkins, not Jim Callaghan, would have succeeded him. Had Heath lost, he would have been replaced as leader, possibly by Enoch Powell, but certainly not by Mrs Thatcher. Peter "The Cat" Bonetti has a lot to answer for!
3 The Death of Hugh Gaitskell, 1963
This had profound consequences which weren't really appreciated at the time. It didn't affect the result of the following general election - Labour would have won that anyway - but it did affect the way the Labour Party developed thereafter. Had he lived, Gaitskell would have turned Labour into a modern social democratic party. He would have established a revisionist line of succession from Jenkins to Healey to Hattersley to Brown. There would have been no need for the SDP breakaway, and arguably, no New Labour either.
4 Black Wednesday, 1992
The counterpoint to the Winter of Discontent. Whereas that destroyed Labour's credibility as a governing party for a generation, this destroyed the Tories' - perhaps unfairly as the Labour frontbench of the time under John Smith had been committed to exactly the same monetary policy that caused the debacle. The only leading politician who opposed this unholy consensus was Bryan Gould, who ended up running a university in New Zealand. Which only goes to show that there is very little justice in politics.
5 The Falklands War, 1982
People now talk about the Thatcherite hegemony of the 1980s as if it were a historical inevitability. But up until this point, her government's long-term survival was seriously in doubt. The recently-formed Liberal-SDP Alliance was riding high in the polls and even Michael Foot's Labour Party was more popular than Thatcher's Conservatives. The Falklands campaign, which could easily have turned into the biggest military debacle since Suez, changed all that. It gave us back our self-belief, and Thatcher her aura of invincibility.
6 The Miners' Strike, 1984
The defeat of the miners destroyed not just a union, but also an industry, a movement, and eventually an entire Northern British and Welsh subculture to which the film Brassed Off now stands as a memorial. Politically, the strike reinforced the Thatcher legend that had been born in the Falklands conflict but socially, its effects went much deeper, and I don't think many of them were positive. When I started out in journalism in North Nottinghamshire, the pit villages in the area were vibrant places. Now most of them are riddled by drugs.
7 The Profumo Affair, 1963
Of course I was too young to remember this, but it did occur in my lifetime - just! It's a turning point not just because it contributed to the downfall of Harold Macmillan and the loss of the 1964 General Election for the Conservatives, but also because it captured a decadent ruling elite in its death-throes. Up until this point, the British ruling class thought it could behave moreorless as it liked. Afterwards, as Nigel Birch put it poetically, it was "never glad confident morning again" for Macmillan and his ilk.
8 Healey v Benn, 1981
Much of the credit for transforming the Labour Party in the 80s and 90s has gone to Neil Kinnock for his "grotesque chaos" speech and Tony Blair for his New Labour reforms. But Big Denis was the man who really saved the party. By fighting off Tony Benn's challenge for the deputy leadership, he turned the tide of the left's advance and prevented a haemorrhage of support to the SDP. Together with the Falklands War, it was this that dished Roy Jenkins and Co. Had neither happened, Labour would now be the third party.
9 The Bombing of Canary Wharf, 1993
This one will probably get me hate mail, but the cold hard facts are that it was only when the IRA started targeting big financial institutions on the mainland that they finally succeeded in bombing their way to the negotiating table. After this the Major government realised that it could not defeat the provisionals militarily and set about achieving a political solution. The Anglo-Irish Agreement, then the Good Friday Agreement, and finally the restoration of devolved government earlier this year, was the end result.
10 The Death of Dr David Kelly, 2003
It was not, I think, the Iraq War itself that turned the nation against Tony Blair, but the realisation that we had been systematically lied to about it. Dr Kelly's death was not just a personal tragedy, but the moment we knew that the core value our country had to defend was not democracy, nor even national security, but the sainted reputation of its leader. It was a moment of profound disillusionment that affected the way many people now view politics, and from which the reputation of our political system has not recovered.