Thursday, November 08, 2007

The Top 10 Political Turning Points

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.

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Gareth said...

11. The near simultaneous election of an SNP administration in Scotland and a Scottish Prime Minister in England.

Anonymous said...

October 2007 and the failure of Brown to call an election.

Anonymous said...

Don't think this top ten is going to have quite the same resonance as the first one.

Notwithstanding, I would propose Winston Churchill's little - referred to decision not to take the UK into the newly formed European economic block in the late 1940s (or was it very early 1950s?). I believe it was then called something like the Steel and Coal Union or Federation or something similar.

If only his Little Englander/Imperial delusions had not got in the way, we probably would have had a major impact on how the Europian Federation then Common Market developed. De Gaulle was not in a position at the time to cast his 'Non'and anyway at that stage all the members wanted us in. Moreover, the UK was still riding high on the high moral ground post-WW2.

We probably could have carried forward the faltering flame of popular DOMESTIC feeling of Britain still as a world power and converted it into a new progressive internationalism founded on a new European basis.

Instead, what is now the EU has not developed well and our Little Englander jingoism seems to have only strengthend

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
David Boothroyd said...

Ted Harvey has the wrong target - it was actually the Labour government which decided not to sign up to the Schuman plan and the ECSC. Churchill in opposition called for Britain to join, but took no action when he returned to government.

Doubtful calling this a turning point, though; it was more a no-turning point when Britain carried on the same course when it should have changed.

MorrisOx said...

Without wishing to lower the tone of a great debate about thoughtful piece, we can perhaps temporarily add the post from anonymous above, which just goes to show what a pathetic little enterprise must be.

No doubt this, and the post of the salesman known as anonymous, will be deleted atan appropriate moment.

Paul Linford said...

MorrisOx - done. The link appeared to be broken anyway.

Tom Freeman said...

Maybe not top ten, but:

Portillo's defeat at the 1997 election; Heseltine's heart attack a few days afterwards. I think either of them would have beaten Hague.

Both John Smith's heart attacks: the first made Brown's reputation and the second set Blair on the road to No. 10.

The failure of 'In Place of Strife' made full-strength Thatcherism (eventually) inevitable).

Anonymous said...

david boothroyd I did not know that thanks, and I will do some re-reading. Last time I did this on this blog I was proved correct :).

Anonymous said...

Paul overplays Canary Wharf. If, indeed, the British realised that the PIRA could not be defeated militarily, just as important (if not more so) was the Provisional IRA's realisation that the British could not be militarily forced out of Northern Ireland (after a series of intelligence successes, and after the Loyalist paramilitarities started killing more people than the IRA in the early 90s).

That, plus a realisation of what might be gained from the political route (whether it was Gerry Adams' election as MP for West Belfast in 83, the Anglo-Irish Agreement, or the influence of constitutional nationalist sympathisers such as Ted Kennedy in the US, an influence strengthened by the end of the Cold War), brought about the Provisional IRA ceasefire in August 94.

If you read the various histories (not least those by Eamon Mallie and David McKittrick), it's clear that the British government and Provisional IRA were negotiating through backchannels before the Canary Wharf bomb. Also, remember that Sir Patrick Mayhew's 'no selfish or strategic interest' speech was made before Canary Wharf, as was (in late 1992) his raising the prospect of British troops retreating to barracks if the Provisional IRA stopped using violence.

And, no matter what the potential economic impact of more bombings like that of Canary Wharf, it's clear that Margaret Thatcher (had she survived the 1990 leadership election) would not have negotiated with PIRA. Yes, Major was the target of an assassination attempt as well, but Thatcher was probably influenced by the Provisional IRA having killed Ian Gow (INLA, a splinter group of the Official IRA, killed Airey Neave).

And, reading Jack Holland's history of the Troubles, another problem with the Canary Wharf theory is that, apart from the prospect of negotiating with a government with a large majority, the second IRA ceasefire (in July 97) happened in no small part to the Provisionals judging the campaign of violence from February 96 (including another bombing in Canary Wharf, and laying waste to much of Manchester City Centre) a failure.

The one government which was 'influenced' by PIRA violence was the Wilson government. It's clear from Bernard Donoughue's Diaries that the second Wilson government seriously contemplated the option of outright withdrawal.

Anonymous said...

Re. the death of Gaitskell, the one fly in the ointment of this social democratic utopia is Vietnam. Wilson, for all his other faults, at least kept us out of an unpopular US war. Gaitskell, by contrast, was much more of an Atlanticist, and would have succumbed to the intense US pressure (far more intense than any Blair was put under re. Iraq) to send British troops. This would have caused such ructions within the Labour Party (as wwith Wilson, likely to have been in power with a small majority) that he may well have been either ousted, or required Conservative support (possibly even another National government).

As for Peter Bonetti, it's obvious from watching the 1972 League Cup final between Stoke City and Chelsea that, while Bonetti was good, Banks was far better, and may well have made the difference in the 1970 quarter-final but for being ill. That said, Sir Alf Ramsay's decision to substitute Bobby Charlton was as much to blame. Franz Beckbenbauer, busy marking Charlton until he went off, was then free to move forward and score.

As for Iraq, I think the post-war chaos, just as much as spin, was responsible for the war becoming unpopular.

Another turning point you might have included was the oil shock, which helped wreck Keynesian welfare capitalism and the post-war consensus.

Paul Linford said...

Richard - that's an astute point about Vietnam which I have to say I hadn't thought of. If you're right, the Labour-SDP split could have come in 1967, not 1980. The result would not have been the social democratic utopia of which I wrote but three decades of Tory government! Perhaps Harold Wilson wasn't such a bad old chap after all....

Drew said...

Reading and watching media from the 70s and my own memories convince me that we would probably not have been more civilised if the Thatcher/Reagan 80s hadn't happened.

The phrase "Swinging 60s, Savage 70s" springs to mind - coined by the TV writer HV Kershaw in 1981.