Tuesday, 5 May 2009

General Election 1979 BBC Parliament 4th May 2009

It was thirty years ago that Margaret Thatcher was elected.  On the exact anniversary the BBC broadcast the whole of their election coverage from the day itself.  I was eighteen at the time and I don't remember taking that much interest at that time.  It was the first general election in which I had the vote.  I didn't actually cast that vote but I was living away from home at the time. I remember that I had decided to vote Labour, but without much enthusiasm or conviction. It didn't seem that important and I didn't think that how you voted was anything that would make much difference.  Mrs Thatcher had a big impact on the country and radically altered the way a lot of people thought about politics, including me.  By the summer of the following year I had become very interested in politics indeed. I had become a convinced socialist, but only after going through the stage of thinking whatever can we do to get rid of this bloody woman!

Watching the unfolding of her election victory was for me a bit like watching the starting bit of a film you had missed the first time you saw it.  I knew all the characters, but somehow I had never seen them in quite this context before.  And of course, looking back thirty years gives you the benefit of hindsight.  And I am forty eight now, with a son the age I was then.  That gives you a certain perspective too.

What a different world it was then. The election was covered as a news story with a degree of detachment that it is hard to imagine now.  The media was, no doubt, very important even then.  But it was somehow not central.  You got the distinct impression that a proper campaign was going on in the streets and at the meetings. Trade union leaders were treated with great reverence, and it was clear that everyone was expected to know who they were and to be interested in what they had to say. I don't think I could name a single current trade union leader.  I am struggling to remember the names of more than a couple of unions.

But the other thing was the characters who I was later to get to know from avid following of the political pages over the next fifteen years.  Shirley Williams seemed like a sweet lost little girl. She was rather surprised by losing her seat and had obviously not got a clue what to do next. Of course I knew the disastrous course she would take in the next few years. But I don't suppose at the time she thought that things were going to get even worse.

Jim Callaghan came over as the hero of the night.  Calm, courteous and unphased by a virulent protestor at his last, as he no doubt knew, count. I wondered if the woman who blighted his night was watching. If she has mellowed with the passage of time like most of us do I wonder if she regrets it now. She certainly did her cause no good and the dignity which the old statesman showed really impressed me.  For the first time in my life I began to feel sorry for missing my chance to vote Labour.

Mrs Thatcher did not cut nearly so sympathetic a figure.  I don't think I can get away from my dislike of her and what she stands for, but I think that objectively she certainly appeared confident and knew what she was doing. Even I, a convinced socialist, don't think that she set out delibrately to wreak havoc and throw millions out of work. I can only conclude that although she knew what she wanted and knew what she was doing- she clearly didn't actually understand what the consequences of her actions were. But it was easy to see how people could have got carried away with her charisma and sense of purpose. I now have a lot of experience behind me, and I am always worried by people who seem too sure of themselves. 1979 was the first time I felt that way.

Roy Hattersley, hard to imagine him today as the rather arrogant young know it all he was then. Of course he was to spend most of his life in opposition, but then he was a young minister from the party that had been in power for most of the previous 15 years. No doubt he thought it wouldn't be too long until he was back. But this was the first time I had ever noticed just how punchable his face was.

I had never really understood why Keith Joseph was called the Mad Monk.  Seeing him interviewed it all became clear.  He was as crazy as a bucket of frogs. But he also clearly had a plan.

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