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On 11 February 1975 the Conservative Party torpedoed Butskellism, just as irrevocably as their newly elected leader torpedoed the Belgrano seven years later. Butskellism was a cross party-consensus that took its name from the moderate Conservative Chancellor, Rab Butler, and his Labour Shadow, Hugh Gaitskell. The consensus accepted that the reforms of the post-war Labour government – the NHS, public ownership of utilities and social security – would remain in place despite tweaking to the left or right by whichever party was in power. The Monday Club ambush from the right that deposed Edward Heath changed Britain forever.
The decade in which Thatcher came to power was a turbulent one and it is unlikely that the Monday Club coup would have succeeded otherwise. The headlines were like chapter headings in a dystopian novel:
STATE OF EMERGENCY DECLARED
ARMY OPENS FIRE ON PROTESTORS
HEATH ANNOUNCES STRINGENT MEASURES TO CONSERVE ELECTRICITY THREE DAY WEEK FOR NEW YEAR
LONDON ROCKED BY BOMB EXPLOSIONS
HEATHROW SURROUNDED BY RING OF STEEL
The troubles in Northern Ireland combined with strikes and fuel shortages to create a lethal cocktail of national anxiety that fed the political right and roused retired colonels from their gin-soaked slumbers. Private armies proliferated. One such, the ‘Unison Committee for Action’ was formed by retired General Sir Walter Walker to fight what he described as ‘the Communist Trojan horse in our midst, with its fellow travellers wriggling their maggoty way inside its belly’. The captains in uniform were joined by captains of industry who talked of forming a national government of leading company directors and entrepreneurs in the wake of a military coup.
The two big political losers of the 1970s were Edward Heath and Harold Wilson. Although Wilson’s surprise resignation on 16 March 1975 remains a mystery, it was most likely the result of exhaustion and a fear of early onset Alzheimer’s. On the other hand, the plots against Wilson were many and real. The first occurred in May, 1968 when the press baron Cecil King petitioned Lord Mountbatten to lead a national government following a coup. King’s plea was quickly dismissed, but elements of the security services, the CIA and the press continued to conspire against Wilson. The most outrageous of many smears was that Hugh Gaitskell had been murdered by the KGB in order to make way for a Soviet agent, Harold Wilson, to lead the Labour Party.
No one has ever explained exactly why the Army threw a ring of steel around Heathrow in 1974. The first deployment occurred in January when Heath was still Prime Minister, but the deployments continued in earnest after Wilson returned to power. The official explanation was the threat of an attack by terrorists armed with anti-aircraft missiles, but Downing Street was never informed in advance.
In retrospect, bayonets and tanks are an obsolete way of seizing power. The modern way is control of the press and financial institutions. Only five men – Rupert Murdoch, the Barclay twins, Lord Rothermere and Richard Desmond – own the newspapers which account for 80% of UK circulation. The top three UK banks now have sufficient assets to buy the entire UK housing stock. In theory, if they conspired to do so, the banks could buy up all our houses and evict the entire UK population. In the context of such an overwhelming concentration of financial and media power, the army and the security services are now just as irrelevant to governing Britain as their fellow public sector employees.
The forty years since Thatcher became leader of the Conservative Party have largely been a mopping up exercise by the free market fundamentalists, the deregulators and the privatisers. Butskellism has been replaced by Blatcherism. The result of the election on 7 May has given the green light for imposing the same economic model on Britain that the ‘Chicago Boys’ imposed on Pinochet’s Chile between 1975 and 1990. The programme saw trade unions suppressed, the public sector slashed, real wages fall by 20%, unemployment at 18% and left 45% of the population below the poverty line. The ‘Chilean Miracle’ did, however, create enormous wealth for those at the top.
The cynical lesson from the 1970s is ‘who pays wins’. The phrase was coined by a retired colonel who, impressed by the success of British mercenaries in the Middle East, suggested it as a replacement for the SAS motto, ‘Who dares wins’. But another lesson is that daring can also win. Perhaps the Socialist Campaign Group can do for Jeremy Corbyn in 2015 what the Monday Club did for Margaret Thatcher in 1975. It may be our only chance to rescue the ideals that created the NHS and the other great reforms of the post-war Labour government – and what a splendidly ironic way of celebrating the 40th anniversary of Thatcher’s rise to power.
Edward Wilson is the author of A Very British Ending, a novel based on the plots against Harold Wilson.