By Kirsty McHugh, OUP UK
On Tuesday morning, the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, announced that there will be a General Election on Thursday 6 May, thus kicking off the traditional four-week election campaign. I thought that it would therefore be fitting to take a look back at some past UK elections. Below is an excerpt from the revised edition of The Oxford History of Britain, which focuses on the June 1987 election and the Conservative administration that followed.
In the June 1987 general election, despite a more vigorous Labour campaign under a new leader, Neil Kinnock, the Conservatives again won an easy victory, with 375 seats as against 219 for Labour and only 22 for a flagging and disintegrating Liberal/Social Democrat Alliance. Thatcher thus became the first prime minister since Lord Liverpool in 1812–27 to win three successive general elections, an extraordinary achievement. The Conservatives made much in the campaign of their claims to have restored national prosperity, and also to be reliable protectors of national security. Labour’s policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament did not command wide support. In thriving southern England, the party appeared divided, dated, and unelectable.
On the other hand, the regional gulf in Britain revealed by the election returns was also plain. The sweeping Conservative gains came in the South and the Midlands. They lost ground in the industrial cities of the North; there was a 5 per cent swing to Labour in Wales; and a 7.5 per cent swing in Scotland. There was much talk of a basic social divide in the land, between an increasingly prosperous and complacent South, and a decaying, declining North, with endemic unemployment, urban dereliction, and collapsing public services. The ‘two nations’ described in Benjamin Disraeli’s novels in the 1840s were still in evidence well over a century later.
Britain in the 1980s manifested a remarkable skein of elements of dissolution and stability, in fragile coexistence. The forces of disruption were evident enough. There were physical reminders in the troubles in Northern Ireland, in the industrial world, and in the black ghettos in the cities. There was the new challenge to the political consensus posed in their various guises by the neo-Marxist Labour left headed by [Tony] Benn, by the racialist perversities of the quasi-Fascist National Front, and perhaps by the patrician detachment displayed at times by some Social Democrats. Traditional relationships – the young towards their parents, ‘feminist’ wives to their husbands, workers to their employers and union leaders, students to their teachers, citizens to the custodians of law and order – seemed to be in flux. Is Britain Dying? was one evocative book title in 1979. British stability was too often expressed, by contrast, in an almost religious reverence for ancient forms and ancestor worship, as in the veneration of the royal family, or the ambiguous notion of ‘heritage’, which often entailed a distinctly selective and sentimental reading of British history.
Public instability was markedly reinforced by the disarray into which Thatcher’s government lurched after the 1987 general election. For most of the decade, with its creed of monetarism, privatization, and the primacy of market forces; with its challenge to institutions such as the Church, the universities, and local government; with the almost invincible personal ascendancy of the Prime Minister herself, ‘Thatcherism’ seemed triumphant. But over the next three years it ran into severe difficulties. At home, some of its more radical proposals met with major opposition. Attempts to introduce market forces into education and even more into the National Health Service aroused much opposition. Above all, a proposal to replace the system of household rates with a community charge (or ‘poll tax’) led to an upsurge of revolt across the nation. After all, freeborn Englishmen, headed by Wat Tyler, had rebelled against a poll tax back in 1381, and the memory of it remained in popular legend. Even more disastrous was an unwise decision to impose the poll tax in Scotland first, in 1989. This added to the alienation of professional, middle-class opinion in Scotland from the Conservatives. A multi-party Constitutional Convention was held in Edinburgh and plans were drawn up for the devolution of power to a Scottish Parliament with tax-raising powers.
Most serious of all, the apparent revival in the economy began to lose credibility. It was heralded by the stock market crash on ‘Black Monday’ in October 1987 which wiped 22 per cent off stock prices. The tax-cutting policy of the Chancellor, Nigel Lawson, was now seen to have led to a huge balance of payments deficit, at £20 billion the worst figure on record. Unemployment rose sharply and the pound came under pressure. Worse still, the conquest of inflation, the government’s main boast, was now threatened by a consumer credit and spending boom. The bank rate soared to 15 per cent, and the impact was felt by every mortgaged home-owner in the land. To make matters worse, Lawson, locked in bitter argument with the prime minister over European policy, resigned, later followed by Geoffrey Howe, the recent Foreign Secretary.
Thatcher herself now became increasingly unpopular. Her intensely personal, imperious style of leadership now seemed more of a liability. Her reputation for ‘strength’ in foreign affairs, dating from the Falklands War, also seemed less credible, especially with repeated rows over monetary union with Britain’s European partners. At the same time, the Labour Party, responding to Kinnock’s ‘new realism’, became increasingly moderate and therefore more electable. It dropped its commitment to mass nationalization and unilateral nuclear disarmament, and its hostility towards Europe, and turned on the hard-left Bennite remnants in the process. In the summer of 1990 it seemed that a sea change in British politics might be at hand.