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34 years on from my election to Humberside County Council, as one of four Liberals holding the balance of power, I cringe at my naivety. I recall being interviewed for the local TV. Asked what I hoped would be better about Humberside at the end of my four year term of office I struggled to come up with an answer and produced something pretty vague about giving people a bigger say in the decisions we took.
One certainty in politics is that everyone thinks they can do better than the current crop of politicians at all levels of government. That was certainly the belief I had on entering politics. It was not long before I came across a number of people who felt the same and found myself explaining that it is not as simple as it seems from what you read in the papers. Quite early on I invited a critic, someone who had written scathingly about the council in a letter to the Grimsby Telegraph, to accompany me on my next briefing session with the Director of Education so that he would have a better understanding of the kind of problems we had to grapple with. To his credit, that man wrote a second letter to the Grimsby Telegraph expressing his appreciation for what I had done.
We had access to the experience of Liberals on other councils where there was no party with an over all majority. These advised strongly that we should not seek alliances with either of the other two parties and this policy was endorsed nationally by the Liberal Party. We might be only 4 men, but together we represented about a quarter of all of the votes cast in the election; we had our own policy priorities, some of which were shared with Conservatives, some with Labour. We would need to consider each decision on its merits, not vote consistently with only one of the other parties.
This proved hard for the others to accept. They were used to a situation where the casting vote, if needed, was the Chairman’s – normally it would not be needed since each service committee would, like the council, have a majority of members from one party. For them this was a new and strange situation. We had to persuade the other parties that, for the next four years, committees would have equal numbers of Labour and Conservative members plus one Liberal; the committee’s chair person would not have a casting vote, the Liberal member would.
To begin with, Labour would not accept committee chairmanships on that basis, so we supported Conservative chairmen (they did not offer any women for these positions.) That lasted until the setting of the first annual budget early in 1986.
There is an endemic problem with the way local government is funded in the UK, one that is, if anything, worse now than it was in the 1980s. A mixture of government allocation and local property tax means that any reduction in the government allocation has to be met, either by a disproportionate amount raised locally, by cuts in services, or by charging for some services. Moreover, there are certain services the council has a statutory duty to provide and which cannot, therefore, be cut, which means that other services are particularly vulnerable to cuts and/or charges. Every such enforced decision – increasing taxes or charges, or cutting services – is bound to make the local politicians unpopular.
The education department, for example, was legally bound to provide education for children aged between 5 and 16 – and beyond for those able to benefit from continuing full time education. Adult education and provision for under 5s were therefore extremely vulnerable to any cuts in the education budget. Councillors on the political right were especially scornful of such provision. Still clinging to old fashioned notions about women’s roles, they believed that, should a mother choose to return to the workplace, she must pay for whatever provision was made for the care and education of her infants until they reached the statutory age for starting school. Likewise, adult education was regarded by the same individuals as a hobby activity which should not be tax-payer funded.
Similar arguments were used in the Social Services area with regard to the provision of home care services.
We were not prepared to support such policies and joined with Labour in voting down the budget proposed by the Conservatives, whereupon they resigned the chairmanships. Labour accepted the chairmanships (including one female) on our terms. That remained the position for the rest of the four year term.
The pattern of local elections in that part of the country at that time was as follows: in Grimsby one third of the councillors stood down in each of three successive years, in Cleethorpes the whole council was re-elected every four years as was the whole of the county council. Cleethorpes elections took place midway between county elections, which occurred on the year without a Grimsby council election. In case that’s difficult to follow: County Council elections took place in 1981, 1985 and 1989. Cleethorpes Borough Council elections in 1983 and 1987, Grimsby Borough Council elections occurred in 1982, 1983 and 1984, then again in 1986, 1987 and 1988. All local elections throughout the UK were, and still are, held on the first Thursday of May.
Thus I, and other aspiring Cleethorpes politicians, were able to learn and practice campaigning skills by assisting at Grimsby Borough Council elections in 1982. We also travelled to places where Parliamentary by-elections were being held. Several of these occurred in the months following my having joined the Liberal Party.
The first such election in which I went to assist was in November 1981 in Crosby, Liverpool, where Shirley Williams, a former Labour minister who had lost her seat in the 1979 general election, was standing for the Social Democrats. A month earlier the Liberals had taken a seat from the Tories in Croydon. I recall seeing Ms Williams waving to passers by from the back of a truck and being surprised by her small physical stature which in no way matched her charisma or her intellect.
Glasgow was a bit too far to travel but the third success for the Liberal/SDP Alliance came in March 1982 when another former Labour Party minister, Roy Jenkins, won in the Hillhead constituency. I did travel to Birmingham Northfield, in October of 1982, and Darlington in March of 1983, although our candidates there failed to take those seats, both of which were won by Labour. I was not impressed by the style of the SDP candidate at Darlington, who I thought employed too much “razz-a-matazz” and not enough grass roots campaigning.
Perhaps this was the first sign, for me, of a difference between Liberal and SDP methods. The latter, I suppose, being based on Labour Party traditional campaign techniques. Liberals, by contrast, had introduced something they called “Community Politics”, basically, being active in the community, seeking out issues and leading campaigns to persuade those in power to address them. In that way, individuals acquired a reputation which enabled them to garner votes when they stood for election to the local council.
All this by-election activity, as well as helping get Liberals and SDP candidates into Parliament, also provided us with experience in campaigning in readiness for the Cleethorpes Borough Council election in May of 1983. By then we had selected a Liberal candidate to contest the Parliamentary seat. Originally from Nottingham, Gavin had worked in Grimsby as an operations manager with Ross Foods, one of several frozen food companies with facilities in Grimsby that process fish from Grimsby port and vegetables from the farms of Lincolnshire and neighbouring counties. During that time he had served a period as a Liberal councillor on Grimsby Borough Council.
Because of this background he was the favourite of the Cleethorpes Liberal Party “hierachy” who head hunted him from his new post as an aide to the Chairman of Imperial Group at their London Head Office. Imperial, a company with investments in tobacco and brewing as well as food processing, had taken over Ross Foods some years before. Gavin was, at the time, engaged in investigating the person, or organisation, behind a series of recent significant share purchases which the Imperial board believed signalled an intention to launch a take-over bid. From the autumn of 1982 he returned to Cleethorpes on most weekends to help us with our campaigning.
There was a great deal of speculation that a General Election would be called soon after the fourth anniversary of the Conservative landslide of 1979, to take advantage of the boost in support for the government following the successful Falklands military campaign. Sure enough, a few days after the Council elections in May, the election was called for early June. I was given the role of aide to the candidate and agent, the latter being the same lady that I had button-holed at the pubic meeting a couple of years before, in February 1981. Meanwhile I was one of the candidates fielded for the council election. Once again, I did not secure a seat, but collectively we achieved some success, increasing the number of Liberals on Cleethorpes BC.
The General Election resulted in an increase in representation for the Conservatives in Parliament, the consequence of a split opposition. Nationally the “Alliance” received over 25% of the vote but only 23 seats. Although this was 12 more than previously, it was bitterly disappointing.
Full result: Conservative: vote share 42.4% (down from 43.9%), seats 397 (up from 339); Labour: vote share 27.6% (down from 36.9%) seats 209 (down from 261); Alliance: vote share 24.5% (up from 13.8% gained by the Liberal Party in 1979); seats: 23 (up from 11 held by the Liberal Party in 1979)
How could a party gain seats while losing vote share? How could a party with 27.6% vote share end up with eight times as many seats as a party with 25.4% vote share?
The answer lies in the “First Past the Post” election system used in the UK. Imagine a constituency with 3 candidates contesting the single seat available. With the votes split 42:30:28 there can be only one winner. It is only because of demographics that Labour won any seats, some constituencies being predominantly working class. In such elections a third party can come second everywhere and win no seats at all. On the other hand, the presence of a strong third party can adversely effect the relative positions of the two other parties, which is why the Labour Party lost seats to the Conservatives.
In Parliament the Conservatives, now with a majority of over 140, were free to implement a raft of harsh policies based on the doctrine of “Reaganomics”, and did so.
Those who lead the clamour for Britain to leave the EU sometimes utter the strangest of remarks, betraying their complete lack of knowledge or understanding of their own nation’s history. One such recently came from Lord Lilley in an interview on BBC Television. When expressing his incomprehension at the length of time taken to negotiate the terms of the withdrawal agreement he opined that it didn’t take that long to negotiate Indian independence. The remark set me thinking about Britain’s complicity in drawing up borders that have either been the cause of, or have failed to end, a great deal of bloodshed, Indian independence being a case in point.
The movement for independence in India spanned 90 years, so hardly happened overnight as Lord Lilley seemed to be suggesting.
Britain’s response, in 1905, was to establish a border separating Bengal from the rest of the sub-continent, a move that served to increase the clamour for independence for all India. Despite this, India and its people played a vital role in support of Britain during World War I and were rewarded by the Government of India Act in 1919, but it would be almost 30 years before India finally gained independence.
It is true that the final settlement achieved in a couple of months in the summer of 1947 between drafting of a Bill and the implementation of independence. But it came at the end of a long period during which numerous options were tried without success and was accompanied by another arbitrary drawing of borders that created a Pakistan that consisted of two areas separated by almost 1,000 miles of Indian territory. Violent clashes between Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs followed, with up to 2 million deaths attributable to them. Parts of the border, notably the portion that defines Kashmir, remain in dispute to this day, 70 years after Indian and Pakistani independence. In the meantime East Pakistan saw a bloody civil war that ended with the creation of Bangladesh. Famine, widespread poverty and a series of military coups followed.
I could continue with a litany of similar examples, such as in the Middle East, where war over borders drawn by the victorious allies of both World Wars, of which Britain was a leading member, continue to this day, or in parts of Africa and in Cyprus. But the one that matters in the context of Brexit is that between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Established in 1921 by the United Kingdom to create an enclave for the minority of Irish people who had no wish to leave the UK, in no sense is this “the Irish border”.
Irish independence came at the end of a century and more of campaigning which began the moment Ireland was annexed to the UK in 1800. The final years of that campaign were a bloody war of independence. The creation of the border as a condition of independence for the rest of the island led to a mercifully short, but bloody, civil war in Ireland
and to years of unofficial conflict involving paramilitary organisations on both sides. But the fact is that from the outset there was freedom of trade and travel between Ireland and the UK, across the Irish Sea as well as the land border, except during the years of greatest paramilitary activity and occupation by the British army in Northern Ireland.
Despite claims that there is no intention on the part of the UK to see a “hard border on the island of Ireland”, the fact is that the primary rationale of Brexit is to “take back control of our borders”.
Not only does the phraseology imply there will be a hard border at points of entry on mainland Britain, the airports and seaports, it is hard to see how this can not include the only land border between the UK and the EU.
Unless, that is, it is accepted that a different regulatory regime pertains in Northern Ireland to that in the rest of the UK. In truth, there is nothing strange about such a concept. The province has always had greater autonomy than any other part of the UK, as, indeed, did the whole of Ireland before 1922. Northern Ireland, for example, remains the only part of the UK where same sex marriage is forbidden. It is the only part of the UK where politics is defined by religious extremism.
Several things recently got me thinking about the difficulty of creating solid, flesh and blood and sympathetic characters, even when those characters do things that you can never imagine yourself doing.
The first was an interview with John Boyne who has done it time and again in his novels. The next was starting to read Milkman, this year’s Man Booker prize winning book. I have so far only read the first 50 pages, but already it is teaching me things about our recent history and about the craft of writing from deep inside the head of a character. Set in Northern Ireland during the 1970s it appears to be an indictment of the stifling masculinity and the paranoia that drove the violence on both sides of the sectarian divide.
The second thing was this article by a woman film maker about the way men portray women and her admiration for two movies in which women have, in her opinion, successfully portrayed men.
When I think about my own writing I can’t escape the conclusion that too many of my characters are merely poor reflections of aspects of myself. But I also think that the problem of men portraying women, and vice-versa, is just one facet of a much more complex problem: can a heterosexual accurately portray a homosexual? A white middle class person a poor immigrant? Any of us any other person’s deep inner personality and thought processes?
It is important because the narrative arts – theatre, film and literature – are the windows through which the rest of us are enabled to experience the lives of others. If those lives are miss-represented then it creates the cultural attitudes that drive some men to behave inappropriately toward women or certain politicians to spread fear of migrants seeking a better life. And, conversely, it is the way that better life is portrayed in the media that attracts those migrants in the first place.
I’ll say no more, but hand you over to Joey at:
At risk of becoming a bore by repeating my admiration for this writer and her latest book, I give you here her own words about the charities she’s supporting with royalties.
Right now you can get it for 0.99 of your local currency on pre-order for delivery on September 5. I ordered my copy a while back, even though I had the privilege of reading an early draft. I don’t merely recommend it, I urge you to get your hands on it if you haven’t already. You will not be disappointed, either by plot, by character development or by the sheer quality of the writing.
In case Sally’s description and Lesley’s review posted in Sally’s Cafe and Bookstore below don’t convince you to buy this book, here is my review: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/2471099115
My thanks to Sally Cronin for featuring Strongbow’s Wife on her blog, along with an excellent review.
For anyone that’s interested, there are two ways in which the Strongbow story connects with Archbishop Becket. Both he and Henry II were close friends with the Bristol merchant Aoife’s father first turned to for help in regaining his kingdom. And, once Beckett had been murdered in Canterbury Henry felt the need to atone. His mission to Ireland, suggested by the Pope some years earlier probably seemed like a good way of doing so.