Francis Beckett

 

 

Minutes after Margaret Thatcher’s death was announced, a very young researcher – or maybe an intern – from a radio station was given my name and phone number and told to ring and ask if I’d do instant comment. He did, and I said I didn’t know she’d died.  He replied solicitously: “I’m so sorry to break it to you so suddenly.”  I couldn’t help laughing, and he must have thought I’d been made mad by grief.

Over the next few days I found myself unexpectedly and unusually in demand by broadcasters.   I used my intermittent few seconds of fame to debunk the increasingly accepted conventional wisdom that the seventies were utterly dreadful.

This myth suits both the Thatcherites and the Blairites, and it suits David Cameron.  Thatcherites need it to show that she hauled the country out of a great, deep pit.  Blairites need it to justify what they did to the Labour Party, and to  keep the frighteners on Ed Milliband.  Cameron needs it to justify austerity, as well as his decision to accord Thatcher a Churchillian funeral  (which he milked shamelessly for his own political profit.)

Since the myth suits every Prime Minister for the last thirty years, and every national newspaper proprietor, it is hardly surprising that it is now generally mistaken for hard fact.  Mostly, except for the programmes I was on, it went unchallenged in the many hours of broadcasting given to Thatcher’s death and funeral.

Actually, the seventies were a much better time to be young, and old, and maybe even middle-aged, than the present.  There were jobs, there was hope, there was optimism, and deference was dead.

The myth-makers tell us the unions ran Britain and Arthur Scargill ran the unions, but both these statements are entirely false. If the unions ran Britain, how come they lost easily their biggest battle of the seventies, the Grunwick dispute – where they were fighting an exploitative and cruel management - after throwing everything they had at it from 1976 to 1978? 

The unions didn’t have power.  They did have influence, which they used, more often than not, to avoid disputes rather than to cause them, and to help the government control inflation, as Jack Jones did when James Callaghan was at 10 Downing Street. 

As for the Scargill spectre, Arthur’s contribution to Grunwick was to turn up and get himself arrested, returning to his Yorkshire fastness, as he so often did, looking every inch the labour movement hero but having changed nothing.  He had a lot of publicity, and for a while he managed to persuade several trade unionists that he was synonymous with socialist principles, but the idea that he ever ran the trade union movement is entirely invented by those who wish the unions ill, from Thatcher to Blair.

There were jobs.  There were student grants.  Yes, there was also galloping inflation, but at least wages kept up with it, so your wages would buy you much the same in 1978 as they had bought in 1977, which is more than public sector workers can say for 2012 and 2013.  We thought our schools and hospitals were crumbling, and it was only in the eighties that we learned what crumbling meant.

By the end of the seventies, inflation and unemployment were falling and the balance of payments was strong.

Those are the things you can see or measure.  But the real difference is in the intangibles – in the taste and texture of life.  And for that, you’re reliant on ancient folk like me who were already adults in the seventies.

I was a teacher at the start of the seventies, in a huge south London comprehensive.  It was a tough school by seventies standards, but I did not have to deal with the sort of out-of-control classrooms and corridors that are commonplace in many schools now.

I worked all through the seventies, and the atmosphere at work – partly because we did have relatively strong trade unions – had none of the fear and deference that are commonplace in offices today.

Life may well have been rather tougher for financiers than it is now.  But for ordinary folk, it was a whole lot better.

 

In 1946 and 1947, Clement Attlee’s government set out to bolster Britain’s shaky claim to an almost deserted little archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean.  Britain, said a Foreign Office memorandum, was to "take all possible steps to strengthen our title... The occupation upon which we have embarked should be such as to afford evidence of the exercise of sovereignty." 

A mapping exercise was devised, to strengthen a rather flimsy claim, and to pre-empt any similar venture by the Argentine or Chilean governments, despite unmistakable signals that Argentina considered the islands her territory. 

A task force was sent, and a haughty Foreign Office reply was given to a Chilean protest. 

Amid his other troubles – India and Palestine abroad, opposition to the emerging welfare state at home - Attlee may not even have known. I suspect - speaking as Attlee’s admirer as well as his biographer - that if he had, he would have put a stop to it, and saved the lives of 255 young men and women who were not even born in 1947.

As it was, the Foreign Office, under the most traditionalist Foreign Secretary of recent times, Ernest Bevin, instinctively bolstered any potential British claim to territory, however tenuous. And claims do not get much more tenuous than Britain’s claim to the Falklands in 1947.

Another chance to settle the business peaceably was missed in the 1960s, when Britain’s Foreign Office had come to the sensible conclusion that sooner or later the islands ought to be handed over to its near neighbour Argentina. One solution canvassed was an agreement whereby sovereignty would be transferred to Argentina while retaining British administration.

 But the residents, most of them of white British descent, would not hear of it, and negotiations petered out.

Since they were discovered by Dutch explorer Sebald de Weert in 1600, the islands have been variously claimed by Britain, Holland, Spain, France, Argentina and Chile. We are now told that the referendum the 1,650 islanders held recently, when all but three voted to stay with Britain, must be the end of the matter. The Prime Minister says Britain will always be there to defend the Falkland Islanders.

The islanders celebrated far into the night and sang Land of Hope and Glory, and Falklander Andrew Brownlee, resplendent in Union Jack bow tie, waistcoat, jacket and trousers, gave gleeful interviews to eager British reporters. Sybie Summers, owner of a gift shop, said of the three who voted “no”:  "I don't know who they are but if they're not standing up for our islands then they shouldn't be here...  If that is how they feel then they can have a one-way plane ticket out of here marked 'Do not return'." 

A representative of the island’s government went on the BBC news wearing a Union Jack tie to tell us that what they did with their taxes was entirely up to them, but he thought they might consider donating some of them to the cost of defending the islands, which was jolly decent of him since 50 per cent of them think of themselves as Falklanders, not British. 

Whatever they offer will be a drop in the ocean.  Costs of defending the island are £75 million a year, and many times that much as soon as there’s a credible threat. If they met it themselves, every single Falklander would have to find £44,856 every year. Of course, now there’s oil, those 1,650 islanders may be able to make themselves fabulously rich.  Depressing to think that, if we end up fighting for the Falklands again, it will be yet another war about oil.

Only Roddy Napier, 85, was heard calling for an accommodation with Argentina, and his fellow islanders call him a traitor. "In the long term, I still think that we have to come closer to Argentina” he said. “You cannot isolate yourself from your neighbour forever."

It’s time we got rid of these tiny vestiges of empire, like the Falklands and Gibraltar, with their selfish, jingoistic populations, relics of the days when Britain had an empire upon which the sun never set. If they’re so keen to be British, they can come and live here, and we should retain control of their islands long enough for them to do that, if they want to. 

But we should hand the Falklands over to Argentina as soon as possible. 

 

 

Is Labour about to collaborate with David Cameron in letting Murdoch off the hook over the Leveson proposals for media reform and regulation? 

I ask after hearing the estimable general secretary of the National Union of Journalists, Michelle Stanistreet, spelling out the careful evidence-based way in which her union approached its ground-breaking decision to support media regulation, at an NUJ meeting last week.  The decision required both caution and courage, because the NUJ generally sides with the proprietors in opposing regulation, and Stanistreet still has many members who think regulation is the first step on the road to the gulag.  

Actually, it’s because we care about media freedom that we support regulation. Stanistreet illustrated this when she told us that NUJ members with tales of newsroom bullying and being pressurised into writing stories in ways they considered unfair were too frightened to allow her to use their names at the Leveson enquiry – and that she’d had other journalists from the Daily Mail on the phone, trying to wheedle the names out of her.  Now, it’s possible that they were doing so because they thought there was a public interest in the names being known.  It’s also possible that the office wanted a list of unreliable journalists – that they were seeking, not to defend media freedom, but to suppress it by making it clear to dissident journalists that there was a price to be paid.

Here’s another example, from Professor Brian Cathcart’s magnificent little book Hacked Off. The Daily Express secretly placed journalist Peter Wilby under surveillance, soon after Wilby described the Express as “a hopeless newspaper that couldn’t tell you the time of day.”  No story about Wilby resulted.  Did the Express simply want to tell anyone attacking it that there could be consequences?

At the NUJ meeting, Helen Goodman MP, who speaks for Labour on media reform, outlined the progress of multi-party negotiations over the final shape of regulation.  They’re going to end up with something really tortuous – a Royal Charter under which an Appointments Committee appoints a Recognition Panel which checks on the means of appointing a regulator.  It’s being made clumsy in the vain hope of appeasing newspaper proprietors.

Goodman is rightly concerned that the Royal Charter can be amended by the Privy Council.  Keeping it away from Parliament is supposed to keep it out of the hands of politicians.  But all it actually does is keep it out of the hands of lower-ranking politicians – Prime Ministers can get anything they want from the Privy Council.  She’s also right to worry that the appointments committee will include representatives of media proprietors, though not of rank and file journalists. And she’s angry that, while Leveson wanted a complaint to be free, the government wants it to be “inexpensive.”  What’s inexpensive to David Cameron could be a fortune to most of us.

These are proper concern s.  But in the midst of this thicket of trees and hedges, I worry that Goodman is losing sight of the wood.  The big picture is that unless there are penalties for proprietors who do dreadful things, dreadful things will continue to get done.  I don’t just mean surveillance, or phone hacking, or libel, though newspaper proprietors will continue to do all three if they think they can get away with it.  I also mean secretly taking and publishing topless pictures of a young woman who does not want you to take them and does not know she is not in private, or twisting the news to suit the commercial interests of the proprietor, or harassing and intimidating people who have ever had any sort of connection with celebrities, or libelling people because you know they cannot afford to sue.  Read Brian Cathcart’s booklet for the appalling details. 

It’s on that issue that Goodman started to wobble.  I tried three times to get an assurance that Labour would accept nothing less than statutory underpinning with penalties.  I got a sort of assurance on the third time of asking.   But she was very concerned to do everything she could to get an agreed cross-party deal, and I fear she may be willing to pay too high a price for it.

Professor Mary Beard chose to fight back against an internet site called Don’t Start Me Off, run by someone called Richard White.  She wrote: "My appearance on Question Time prompted a web post that has in the last few days discussed my pubic hair (do I brush the floor with it), whether I need rogering...”  The New Statesman’s Laurie Penny reports an internet comment: “There's nothing wrong with [Penny] a couple of hours of cunt kicking, garrotting and burying in a shallow grave wouldn't sort out."

Today’s report on academies, billed as a criticism, is actually an extended effort to rescue them from their abject failure to live up to the hype, and to disguise the dreadful damage they are doing to Britain’s school system.  The first clue is in its title: Unleashing Greatness.  “Unleashing” is a dreadful management jargon word, and only a management consultant would use it in front of an abstract noun, as though “greatness” was a large Alsatian dog.

Odd, I know, to be ranking today’s widely mocked Labour leader with the most successful Labour Prime Minister ever.  I suggested similarities during a podcast with former Blair spin doctor Lance Price, who promised me dinner at a restaurant of my choice if Labour under Miliband gets a 1945-size majority. 

But when Attlee was elected Labour leader in 1935, many people said that such an uncharismatic, ordinary-sounding little man could never be Prime Minister.  He was a temporary stopgap, they said, until the Party could agree on a proper leader.  “And a little mouse shall lead them” confided a bitterly disappointed Hugh Dalton to his diary that night.

What we learned yesterday is the Murdoch empire does what all big organisations, whether governments, quangoes or companies, do when they’re in trouble. They push the blame as far down the food chain as it’ll go.

One of the least comforting things I've seen recently is a police officers' internet forum where they talk among themselves about my article detailing how student Tommy Meyers was thrown to the ground in handcuffs and a police dog deployed on his face, causing injuries requiring 30 stitches and two operations; and how they then refused him access to painkillers or antibiotics prescribed by the doctor for 14 hours.

I've seldom regretted accepting a speaking invitation so much as last Sunday, when I turned up at the Sunday Times/Wellington College Festival of Education.  Apparently they're trying to get more speakers on the left for next year, and I hope no one's going to make the mistake I made, of allowing himself to be used as window-dressing for Edubusiness.

Here’s a charity which won’t be getting a penny of my money, and, I hope, not a penny of yours either: the London Evening Standard’s “charitable partner”, Volunteer Reading Help.