On the fortieth anniversary of the 1979 general election, here’s an extract from Alwyn Turner’s Crisis? What Crisis? Britain in the 1970s.
The truth was that it was Margaret Thatcher’s moment. James Callaghan and his colleagues gave the impression of being tired and ineffectual, entirely lacking in ideas for the future, while the Tory leadership was reinvigorated and had the supreme value of looking new. Whatever else she might have been, Thatcher was very clearly a different proposition from Heath, Wilson or Callaghan, and to a nation wearily accustomed to settling for second-best, she at least talked of aspiration and achievement.
And she bristled with challenges to the orthodoxy that had held the nation in its grasp for a quarter of a century, even if her own party did not realize it. ‘We do not pretend to be the repositories of doctrines or principles which are absolutely true and have to be carried to their logical conclusion,’ Conservative MP Julian Amery had written in the early days of Thatcher’s leadership, but he was wrong: her party was doctrinaire in a way that none had been since Labour in 1945.
Whether that message was fully understood is doubtful, for this was primarily a case of a government losing an election rather than the opposition having to win one. But the Conservatives made the most of their brief, and their success came from fighting Labour on its own ground. Just as the phraseology of ‘Crisis? What crisis?’ and ‘the Winter of Discontent’ had been appropriated from the Heath years, so the Tories borrowed the clothes of left-radical politics from a decade earlier, arguing for individual liberty and freedom from the state (though the state was here defined to include the TUC).
Their poster campaign, prepared by the newly founded advertising firm Saatchi & Saatchi, focused on the key Labour issues of health, education and unemployment, with the slogans ‘Britain isn’t getting any better’, ‘Educashun isn’t working’ and – most famously – ‘Labour isn’t working.’ This latter featured a depiction of a dole queue snaking away into the distance, to reflect the fact that there were then 1.3 million unemployed in the country (though the people in the photograph were actually members of Hendon Young Conservatives). But the slogan that expressed the national mood most effectively was the more general ‘Cheer up, they can’t last for ever.’
The chaos of January and February played heavily in the election, reviving all the fears of rampant trade unionism that had dominated popular perceptions of politics for the last decade or more. In the words of Shirley Williams: ‘The crisis had changed from “Who governs?” to “Who can control the unions?”’ And the answer was: not Labour. Thatcher not only articulated anti-union sentiments (even winning over a substantial number of union members), but brought them together with a deeper underlying sense that things had been going wrong ever since the 1960s.
Those who were uncomfortable with permissiveness, with pornography, with anti-police propaganda, with rising levels of violence, with immigration and with multiculturalism found in Thatcher a party leader in whom they could place their trust, a semi-domesticated Enoch Powell crossed with a less cranky Mary Whitehouse. The fact that she also shared with Powell a faith in the obscure doctrine of monetarism meant little one way or the other; what was important was that she seemed to have tapped into the nostalgia that permeated the 1970s, harking back to better, more peaceful times.
In James Herbert’s 1978 novel The Spear, an MI5 agent who is part of a neo-Nazi plot to take over Britain had denied that he and his comrades were revolutionaries: ‘What we’re talking about is counter-revolution. The revolution is already taking place. We intend to oppose it.’ Tony Benn was to echo the thought, arguing that Thatcherism ‘was a counter-revolution against democracy’.
The result of the election was unequivocal. The Conservatives won sixty-two more seats than did Labour, and became the first party to secure a comfortable government majority since Edward Heath in 1970. It was an extraordinary victory: the biggest swing against a government since the war, producing Labour’s worst share of the vote since 1931, when it had been smarting from the self-inflicted wounds of Ramsay MacDonald’s apostasy. Meanwhile the Liberals and the nationalists suffered, just as Michael Foot had predicted they would.
As she stood on the steps of 10 Downing Street, Thatcher turned to the assembled media and shared with the nation a prayer by St Francis of Assisi: ‘Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope.’ It was, snorted Jim Prior, ‘the most awful humbug’.
Worse than that, it turned out that it wasn’t even a genuine work by St Francis at all, but rather a nineteenth-century imitation…
extracted from Crisis? What Crisis? Britain in the 1970s