1979: Britain in meltdown

From gravediggers' strikes and the murder of an MP to a thriving National Front… in the 12 months before Margaret Thatcher’s first election victory, Britain appeared to be in the grip of a nervous breakdown. Phil Tinline paints a portrait of a nation on the edge | Accompanies the Archive on 4 documentary 1979 – Democracy’s Nightmares, produced and presented by Phil Tinline

A protester in a headlock, Southall, April 1979, when a member of the Anti-Nazi League died after being struck on the head. (Images by Getty Images)

On 7 October 1978, the Labour government’s energy secretary, just back from his party’s Blackpool conference, confided a fear to his diary. “It occurs to me,” mused Tony Benn, “that I made quite a few new enemies at conference this week: BP, for saying that we’d bring it into public ownership; the security services, for suggesting select committee supervision; the generals, for saying they were hired to work for elected ministers and not the other way around. I wonder whether they might just try to polish me off. Sounds extreme, I know,” he added, “but things may be very much worse than we think.”

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Britain was in an extreme frame of mind, in those last months before Margaret Thatcher won the May 1979 election. The government struggled with inflation, strikes and, increasingly, unemployment. Well-qualified professionals had been fleeing to America, while migrants from the Commonwealth had been arriving, to widespread hostility. Vandalism, football hooliganism and squatting were commonplace. Britain was a nation on the edge. And to some, extremism – of left or right – seemed the only answer.

So it’s possible that Benn had reason to be scared. In February 1981, the investigative journalist Duncan Campbell reported in the New Statesman magazine that a former MI6 operative claimed to have been asked by a senior politician to join a team – if Labour won and it looked as though Benn would become prime minister – to “make sure Benn was stopped”.

But why? The answer was that Benn was the champion of the rising socialist movement on the left of the Labour party; a team around him was beginning to prepare a bid for the leadership. In early 1979, it was perfectly plausible that he might soon be prime minister. To some on the hard right, this was unacceptable.

The man allegedly behind the scheme to ‘stop’ Prime Minister Benn was the Conservative shadow Northern Ireland secretary, and ex-wartime intelligence officer, Airey Neave. In the absence of further evidence, the story may well seem far-fetched – but the very fact that so serious a political figure as Benn had already worried he might be assassinated does tell us something about the anxiety levels of late 1970s politics. And then, six months after Benn’s moment of fear, Neave was assassinated, when a bomb planted on his car detonated as he drove out of the House of Commons. The Irish National Liberation Army claimed responsibility.

In 1981, when Campbell contacted him about the allegation, Benn thought nobody would “believe for a moment that Airey Neave would have done such a thing”. He worried that it was “the dirty tricks department trying to frighten me”. But then, when the story was not picked up in the mainstream national press, he began to wonder if it might be true.

Assassination anxiety

Benn wasn’t alone in harbouring these fears as the 1970s came to a close. In 1973, the elected Marxist president of Chile had been murdered in a military coup that brought a free-market dictatorship to power. Since then, many on the left had been haunted by the prospect of a violent rightwing takeover in Britain, orchestrated by a shifting mix of the security services, the military and the far-right. Benn’s assassination anxiety in October 1978 is recorded in his diary immediately after a strange reference to the reappearance of a Special Branch detective who had supposedly been at the 1976 Labour conference “to see that the fascist groups got all the dirt on Wedgie Benn”.

If Tony Benn was under surveillance, he wasn’t the only one. Special Branch was certainly spying on Britain’s leading fascist group: the National Front. In the decade since Enoch Powell’s infamous ‘rivers of blood’ speech, the NF had ridden anxiety about immigration to go from neo-Nazi obscurity to signs of electoral success. In the 1973 West Bromwich byelection, one of the Front’s leaders, Martin Webster, had won over 16 per cent of the vote, less than 3,000 behind the Conservative candidate. Even as racist murders mounted, the Front called for compulsory repatriation, and staged marches in areas with a high immigrant population.

In his 1977 study of the Front, the journalist Martin Walker noted that its bookshop now denied knowledge of its leader John Tyndall’s 1961 tract, The Authoritarian State. As they began to win votes, they preferred to talk about ‘British nationalism’, and were more coy about wanting a dictatorship. Polling from the time suggests most weren’t fooled. But in what was widely seen as a bid for potential NF votes, Thatcher told ITV in January 1978 that people were afraid that Britain might be “rather swamped by people with a different culture”.

In the 1979 general election, the Front were able to stand candidates in 303 constituencies. It was not a normal campaign. On 28 April, the NF held an election meeting in West Bromwich, where they had done so well six years earlier. They were confronted with an audience chanting “Nazi! Nazi!”. One of Tyndall’s colleagues gave them a “final warning” to “shut up or get out”, at which point a chair fight broke out – before a large phalanx of policemen charged in.

Attacking the NF as ‘Nazis’ was a favoured tactic of Trotskyist groups like the Socialist Workers’ Party, which in 1977 was instrumental in creating the Anti-Nazi League. Also on 28 April 1978, there was a march in Southall to commemorate a teacher called Blair Peach. Five days earlier, Peach had attended an ANL demonstration against a National Front meeting in the town hall, which turned into a confrontation with the police. Peach received a blow to the head and died the following day; the Metropolitan Police’s Special Patrol Group were blamed. The SPG, in their black, visored helmets, were feared by some on the left as the harbingers of an emerging rightwing police state.

Yet just as much as the left feared the right, the right feared the left – as in that spectre of a Benn government. April 1979 saw Thatcher warning an applauding crowd about the “Big Brother state that we’d get under socialism”. Labour had come to power in 1974 after a miners’ strike brought Edward Heath’s Conservative government close to breaking point. Heath had called an early election, in which Labour edged ahead, promising a ‘social contract’ with the unions. But at what cost? Many on the right saw a government under the control of the unions.

As the number of racist murders mounted, the National Front called for compulsory repatriation

Looking back, it may seem obvious that all this would give way to Thatcherism. But it wasn’t clear that Thatcher could really make her radical free-market policies stick, if rocketing unemployment and huge strikes ensued. The alternative future came from the Bennite left’s strategy of sweeping nationalisation and import controls. To some, a bureaucratic dictatorship beckoned, under either Benn, the unions or both. In his despairing 1978 book The Dilemma of Democracy, the Conservative Lord Hailsham worried that “it is obvious that the National Front or the left wing of the Labour party would be compelled to govern by the methods of dictatorship if either ever obtained power”.

Finally, Labour’s last-ditch deal with union power started to crack. In September 1978, Ford workers went out on strike against the maximum government-approved raise of 5 per cent. As the ‘winter of discontent’ set in, there was industrial action by lorry drivers, train drivers, ambulance drivers and hospital workers – then refuse collectors and gravediggers followed.

In Whitehall, all this posed the question of if and when to deploy troops; RAF and army personnel were called in to provide back-up during the ambulance strike. According to Bernard Donoghue, head of prime minister James Callaghan’s policy research unit, picketing of ports meant there was sufficient shortage of medicines that “ministers considered sending tanks into the ICI [Imperial Chemical Industries] medical headquarters to retrieve drugs and essential equipment”.

Death in New York

Away from the fraught world of industrial relations, October 1978 witnessed another high-profile tale of misery being played out – this one in the realm of rock music. Sid Vicious, late of the Sex Pistols, was holed up in the Chelsea Hotel in New York, sinking into a drug-induced oblivion with his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen. In 1976, punk had erupted in rebellion against everything from unemployment to the monarchy. The Sex Pistols’ battle-cries – “No Future”, “Destroy” – had something in common with their parents’ generation, which had also despaired of politics. When Nancy died of a stab wound, Sid was charged with her murder. On 2 February 1979, as Britons wondered whether the gravediggers’ strike meant bodies would have to be buried at sea, Sid Vicious died of a heroin overdose.

The collapse of the postwar consensus had conjured all kinds of political spectres. But for punk, as for politicians, fear and despair and the destruction of old political taboos also created openings for something new. In national politics, enough people were now ready to try Thatcher’s ideas for her to win power. Meanwhile, punk was becoming less about puke, more about purpose. You only have to listen to the relentless basslines that course through 1978 and 1979 post-punk tracks by the Clash, Public Image Limited, Joy Division, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Slits, X-Ray Spex, Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire and The Jam to tell that this was a generation that was trying not just to rip everything up, but to start again.

Margaret Thatcher’s election victory presented feminists with a paradox – was she really a breakthrough?

And so, from the threat of the National Front, there sprang a strikingly creative response – Rock Against Racism. This began as a grassroots campaign in late 1976, reaching the national stage on 30 April 1978 with a huge carnival in Victoria Park in the East End of London, where the NF was strong. This was organised alongside the Anti-Nazi League. But in comparison to the far-left’s willingness to damn NF leaders and supporters alike as Nazis and fight them in the streets, RAR’s unifying cry for equality won much wider appeal. Tellingly, the Victoria Park line-up put three great equal rights causes together. Steel Pulse, soon to release their album Handsworth Revolution, brought radical anti-racist reggae. The Tom Robinson Band sang ‘Glad to be Gay’. And X-Ray Spex’s singer Poly Styrene took her sardonic vocal flamethrower to misogynist 1970s expectations of young women in music.

While women were gatecrashing the male party in music, they were doing the same in politics – or at least one woman was. The ascent of Britain’s first female prime minister was undoubtedly accelerated by the terminal crisis of politics brokered by ageing men in smoke-filled rooms. But Thatcher’s rise presented feminists with a paradox – was she really a breakthrough? In a press conference during the election campaign, she noted that none of the Fleet Street papers was edited by a woman, and told one of the few female journalists present that “I could do a lot for women at the top, and women trying to get to the top, and for the acceptance of women and their talents and abilities”. But suddenly she was insisting that “women like me – and maybe you – got where we are long before the women’s lib movement”, before declaring her dislike of “strident females”. When the journalist asked if she accepted that women were “underprivileged as a sex”, Thatcher sang the praises of stay-at-home mothers, but didn’t directly address the question.

Gay rights visibility

Meanwhile, another identity politics campaign was also struggling forwards. In February 1979, the tenacious editor of Gay News, Denis Lemon, appealed to the House of Lords against a conviction for “blasphemous libel” for publishing a poem about a centurion having sex with the just-crucified Christ. Lemon lost his appeal. But his case, funded by members of the gay community, gave Lemon’s pioneering newspaper a new visibility. As if to underline the grimness of gay men’s old enforced invisibility, the Liberal party’s former leader, Jeremy Thorpe, was heading for trial too – for conspiracy to murder his ex-lover, Norman Scott, to prevent their affair becoming public. Thorpe would be acquitted.

And then, on general election day – 3 May 1979 – a play by Martin Sherman, starring Ian McKellen, opened at the Royal Court Theatre in London. Bent was about the fate of homosexual men in 1930s Germany. It was an instant hit; Richard Gere was soon starring in it on Broadway. On BBC Radio’s Theatre Call just after the premiere, Denis Lemon pointed out that the play was particularly relevant because resurgent Nazis in Britain, meaning the National Front, had put up so many candidates in the election.

And yet the NF were humiliated in that election, winning just 0.6 per cent of the vote. The Thatcher government was not the ‘fascist’ regime it was sometimes tarred as being. The fear of the imminent death of democracy dissipated. But the radicalism that all that political fear had unleashed – the way in which it acted as a rallying call for the campaigns against racism, sexism and homophobia – still shapes our lives today.


Phil Tinline is a BBC documentary maker. His Archive on 4 documentary 1979 – Democracy’s Nightmares goes out on BBC Radio 4 at 8pm on Saturday 27 April

Radio: For more on the 1970s, listen to Radio 4’s series The Decade That Invented the Future: The 1970s, airing now

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This article was first published in the May 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine