DENIS MACSHANE, LONDON
1970s, 2020s. Same decade, different centuries. What do they have in common? Small groups of political fanatics—determined to deliver revolutionary change that no one really wants and bring Britain to its knees.
Why do I feel I’m reliving the 1970s? That was my first proper political decade after the warm-up excitement of being part of the 1968 generation at Oxford—student occupations, Vietnam, Paris, sex, drugs, Stones in the Park, rock ‘n roll.
The 1970s opened with a Balliol Boy prime minister—arrogant, a good speaker despite odd rhetorical tics, the darling of his party with a mission to take Britain into Europe.
Half a century later, we have a Balliol Boy prime minister—cocky, fluent, the darling of the new Ukip-ized Tory party with a mission to isolate Britain from Europe by all and any means.
We had energy shortages and had to use candles for light in the autumn and winter months.
Now we have a petrol and diesel shortage. Drivers watch the sun going down as they wait in queues hoping for a few liters of fuel.
We had rising inflation and unemployment. Same today.
Then, the Gulf States and wicked Saudi Arabia were blamed. Today, it’s Europe—whose fuel tanker drivers are reluctant to work in a country where the government, press, and sadly, too many people in the street denigrate and disparage anyone with a European accent.
In the 1970s, rubbish piled high on streets in London. In the England of the 2020s there are empty shelves in supermarkets.
Then as now, there was a run on sterling.
There were the gruesome murders of 13 women. The Yorkshire Ripper, a rapist and killer, caused the biggest manhunt ever in British police history. Women in northern English towns were warned to stay indoors.
Today, in south London, the police advise women to stay off the streets after two young women were raped and murdered, one of them by a serving police officer. Sarah Everard, a pretty, smiling 34 year old woman, was detained by a Metropolitan Police officer who handcuffed her, telling her she had broken some Covid regulation, shoved her in his car, raped her, and then killed her.
When her body was found, I went to the vigil on Clapham Common, a large open area a bus ride from Parliament. Instead of hanging their heads in shame that one of their number had done this evil, the London cops barged into the crowds of women who were holding candles and demanding the right to be safe, then dragged some of them away and detained them to discourage the others from protesting the police’s failure to protect Britain’s women.
Travel to Europe was more awkward then. You could buy a paper passport in the Post Office for £1 if you didn’t have the thick black British passport that was too wide to fit into a shirt pocket. It was made out of some kind of board, and after a couple of years hitchhiking with it in the back pocket of my jeans—and a UK passport with the injunction that “Her Britannic Majesty requests and requires free passage without let or hindrance be allowed to the bearer of this document”—it tended to fall part.
The dead were left unburied in the 1970s as workers and the government squabbled over pay. Today, ten million surgical procedures have been pushed back for years. Boris Johnson’s management of the pandemic has led to the highest death rate among rich countries of equivalent size.
Today, thank goodness, I have an Irish passport, thanks to a long-gone granny born in Donegal, and I keep my UK passport for old times’ sake. It’s identical to every passport in the world from North Korea to North Macedonia, because all passports have to conform to a single global standard.
But I have to go through expensive and pointless formalities to travel back and forth to my country—with forms filled in, swabs up my nose, paying through the same nose to so-called Covid testing companies linked to the ruling Tory party and its MPs. The pandemic has been a bonanza for new companies created to import masks and other gear from China. They’re awarded contracts worth billions by close associates of today’s ruling elite.
In the 1970s, a small group of devoted political fanatics helped bring Britain to its knees. They were militant trade union leaders, often former or active communists or Trotskyists who knew in their bones that what Britain wanted was revolutionary change to ditch old alliances and partnerships and reshape the nation, just as the Puritans sought to do after Britain’s revolutionary civil war of the mid-17th century.
They had good communication skills, fervent enthusiasm, and they didn’t care what happened to their country so long as it broke Britain’s economic and other treaty relations.
Today, the political fanatics have spent a decade or more bringing about a complete rupture with Britain’s friends, allies, and centuries-old trading partners just across the Straits of Dover in Europe.
They have disrupted trade, imposed a giant new bureaucracy on British businesses, and discouraged investment—and much as in the 1970s, overseas investors have looked at the ideologues with so much power in Britain and gone elsewhere with their FDI.
Today, there is slow but steady flight of capital and skilled business professionals who cannot work as they did a year ago in Britain as the Brexit drawbridge is hauled up and the country is closed to many of the Europeans who helped make it rich under Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair.
In the Labour Party of the 1970s, it was all but impossible to be pro-European. In the Labour Party of today, it’s impossible for a Labour MP who aspires to promotion even to mention the word “Brexit,” for Labour leaders have adopted the three wise monkeys’ strategy: See No Problem with Brexit, Never Criticize Brexit, and Don’t Hear the 60-plus percent of Brits who now think Brexit is a Bad Thing.
In the 1970s, tax rises hit middle England hard. Today, tax rises are imposed on the poorest of workers as the Government refuses to contemplate any tax that might mean the wealthy pay a fair share.
The dead were left unburied in the 1970s as workers and the government squabbled over pay. Today, ten million surgical procedures have been pushed back for years. Boris Johnson’s management of the pandemic has led to the highest death rate among rich countries of equivalent size. He refuses to face down Covid deniers and vax refuseniks by adopting measures, like vaccination passports, that have worked well on the Continent.
Doing the same as other modern nations in Europe was impossible in the 1970s when the fanatical left rejected the moderate social democracy that worked for European trade unions. Today, the fanatical right refuses to learn from, let alone cooperate with, anyone in Europe about smarter ways of containing the pandemic.
In the 1970s, a series of documentaries, films, and reports exposed the endemic poverty widespread in Britain despite 25 years of welfare state provision. Today, Britain has more families and youngsters living in poverty than ever before. If anything, street begging is more evident and in-your-face in the 2020s than it was fifty years ago.
The 1970s were not a great decade for British prime ministers. Harold Wilson, Edward Heath, and James Callaghan all lost office in the febrile decade when stability, continuity, common sense, and compromise were expunged from the British political lexicon.
Is the same happening now? Prime Minister Boris Johnson has lost two big by-elections and failed to win back seats in Scotland. Scottish independence would do far more damage to the United Kingdom than the IRA-led uprising in Northern Ireland in the 1970s. His party is not popular in local government elections. But Labour and other parties aren’t doing well, either.
The 1970s was an endless spinning wheel of politics, and when the wheel stopped, voters preferred Mrs. Thatcher to endless confusion and chaos.Readers curious about this story may find it useful to read There is No Alternative: Why Margaret Thatcher Matters.
The 2020s are only just getting underway. No one knows how they will end.
Denis MacShane is a writer and consultant on European policy who was Minister of Europe in the Tony Blair government. He has written three books on Brexit, first using the word in 2012. He predicted the referendum outcome in 2014 in his book Brexit: How Britain Will Leave Europe. Last year he published Brexiternity: The Uncertain Fate of Britain. His latest book is Must Labour Always Lose?
|↑1||Readers curious about this story may find it useful to read There is No Alternative: Why Margaret Thatcher Matters.|