Chapter 22

TV Times

In This Chapter

● Why Churchill had to go - and so did the Empire

● How the State became a nanny - and how nanny got into a state

● Why Belfast blew up - and continues to today

● How the sixties swung - and how Mrs Thatcher lobbed them back

This chapter explains what you might call living history; if you’re reading this book, you’re more than likely to have lived through at least some of the history explained here. Perhaps you were a 1960s Mod God more concerned with sharp creases than sharp politics, or strolled around in your flares in the 1970s blissfully unaware of what was going on around you, or watched Grange Hill instead of the Gulf War in the 1990s - but this chapter explains what happened while you were otherwise engaged.

We Are the Masters Now

That’s more or less what the Labour party said when it won the General Election in 1945. Its victory still seems a bit difficult to grasp. Churchill (a Conservative) has just led you through the biggest war in history, the Cold War is just beginning - and you choose this moment to ditch the Great Man? Well, yes, and for some very good reasons:

Churchill completely misjudged the public mood. People linked Churchill’s Conservatives with the unemployment of the 1930s, and their ideas didn’t seem to have advanced since then. Instead of saying how he would set about solving social problems Churchill gave a crazy warning that the Labour Party would establish some sort of Gestapo in Britain if they were elected.

● The army had been running a political education service for the troops, and many of them had become convinced Labour Party supporters.

● Labour ministers had served in Churchill’s wartime cabinet and had more or less run the home front. Now the Labour Party said it would bring in the recommendations of the Beveridge Report.

The Beveridge Report: Fighting giants

During the war, the government set up a special commission chaired by an Oxford academic, Sir William Beveridge, to look into how to create a better Britain after the war. Beveridge talked of five “giants”:

● Poverty

● Disease

● Ignorance

● Squalor

● Unemployment or Idleness

To fight them, Beveridge said, you needed free health care, some sort of national insurance scheme, and full employment. Some people wondered where the money for all this would come from, but most people thought the Beveridge Report was just what the doctor ordered. This was something worth fighting for.

Going into Labour

People were expecting big things of this new Labour government. Would it be able to deliver? The big match was about to kick off, and the star players were:

Clement Attlee, the new Prime Minister. Looked like a bank manager from Croydon. Churchill called him “A sheep in sheep’s clothing”, but Attlee proved a lot tougher than he looked.

Aneurin “Nye” Bevan was the fiery Welsh minister with the job of bringing in a free health service for all. He enjoyed a fight, and Britain’s doctors were going to make sure he got one.

Ernest Bevin, a bull-faced trade unionist who, to everyone’s surprise - including his own - became Foreign Secretary and proved no friend of the Russians. “My foreign policy”, he once said, “is to be able to buy a ticket at Victoria Station and go wherever I damn well please”.

The National Health Service

You know the scene: Poor Victorian family weeps over sick child, but they haven't got the money to fetch a doctor. It's the stuff of bad drama, and Labour wanted to make sure that was where it stayed. Health care - doctors, dentists, hospitals, false teeth and specs - was to be free for everyone. The doctors were up in arms about it; it would threaten their livelihoods and they would have to treat poor people. Nye Bevan (the Welsh minister charged with reforming the country's healthcare system) faced them down and brought in the National Health Service (NHS) in 1948. The NHS was so successful that demand outstripped supply. People wanted to get their money's worth, so they used it so much the NHS had to expand much more quickly than anyone had anticipated. Soon the government had to start charging for prescriptions, and Bevan resigned in protest. As healthy people lived longer, they ended up using the NHS even more as they grew older. So it got bigger and bigger and more and more expensive, and by the 1990s, NHS funding had become one of the biggest problems facing British governments.

Power for the people

So, the Labour government had its star players on the field, a 1945 kick off, and an expectant home crowd. What tactics did they choose? Would Labour attack down the Left Wing?

Attlee and the Labour Party believed that instead of leaving everything to private companies - the system that had failed so spectacularly in the thirties (see Chapter 21 for details on what had gone wrong during the Slump) the State should run the really big basic industries, like coal and steel and the railways, and that the State should provide benefits for everyone. This marked a really radical departure from past practice.


Attlee took coal, steel, electricity and the railways away from private companies so that they could be run “on behalf of the people”. The new National Coal Board got off to a bad start when it was hit by the big freeze in its first month and couldn’t cope. Nationalising the railways got off to a better start, but it proved far too expensive to run all those pretty little local lines, and in 1962 British Rail’s Richard Beeching axed hundreds of them.

Welfare State

Attlee said there was going to be no going back to the bad old days when, if you were too poor, you just starved. From now on the State would look after people properly, from the cradle to the grave. There would be free health care and free

education, schoolchildren would get free milk to make them healthy, and there would be benefits for mothers, or for those not working. Sounded good - if it could be done.

You may have Won the Won the War, but you can’t have any sweets

When the war ended, every man who had served in the armed forces got a civilian “demob” (demobilisation) suit, free-of-charge, to help get him back into civilian life. But if people thought peacetime was going to be one big party, they were in for a shock. You don’t recover from six years of total war overnight, and the Brits had to get used to even tougher restrictions on everyday life than they had had during the war:

National Service continued. Young men were still called up to serve in the armed forces until 1960. There were still plenty of wars and conflicts which required a British military presence and it all helped keep the unemployment figures down.

Rationing got worse. There was less butter and margarine to go round than in the war, and they even rationed bread. There were shortages of everything - meat, eggs, sweets, chocolate. You still needed your clothing coupons and no fancy fashions, either: You had to make do with sensible “Utility” styles. And Utility styles were very, very boring.

The big freeze came. The winter of 1947 was one of the coldest on record: just the time to have a national coal shortage. The trains couldn’t get the coal supplies through the snow. And when the snow melted there were huge floods.

Who was the Third Man?

Carol Reed's film The Third Man is set in Vienna just after the war, but in 1951 Britain got its own "Third Man" drama when two British diplomats, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, suddenly did a bunk and turned up a few days later in Moscow. It turned out they had been spying for Stalin, and the police were just going to haul them in when they got a tip off. But who was the

Third Man, the one who tipped them off? It turned out to be another diplomat, Kim Philby, who had known Burgess and Maclean at Cambridge University. The Russian secret service reckoned all these English spies - there were others - were some of the best agents they ever had.

The Labour government called all this rationing and tightening of belts austerity. Translation? There’s no money, so you can’t have any fun. But there were some bright spots during this period. The nation had a party when Princess Elizabeth married the Duke of Edinburgh, and everyone got madly excited when the first bananas arrived - thanks to the war most children in Britain had never seen one. But on the whole, the Brits had had enough of this austerity lark, and when Christian Dior launched his “New Look” for women, with broad skirts and hour-glass figures, women went for it and to hell with the clothing coupons.

Discovery and recovery

The 1948 Olympic Games - the first ones since Hitler snubbed Jesse Owen in Berlin in 1936 - were held in London. The event wasn’t quite as lavish as Hitler’s had been, but who cared about that?

Then some bright spark pointed out that 1951 would be the centenary of the 1851 Great Exhibition (see Chapter 18 to find out about this), and people thought, “Why not have another Great Exhibition, and this time make it fun as well?” They called it the Festival of Britain. They cleared a big bombsite on London’s South Bank to create a Discovery theme park. In the Dome of Discovery, you could discover all the latest advances in science and technology; then you could come outside and marvel at the Skylon, which shot up into the sky without visible means of support. When your mind had finished boggling, you could go down to Battersea funfair and discover the dodgems.

These seemed exciting times. In 1953 thousands of Britons watched the new Queen Elizabeth’s coronation on a relatively new invention called The Television. On the same day, news arrived that Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Norgay Tensing had climbed Everest - okay, Hillary was a New Zealander and Tensing was Nepalese but the expedition was British. 1953 was also when James Watson and Francis Crick worked out the structure of DNA at Cambridge, and the next year Roger Bannister ran the world’s first four-minute mile at Oxford.

End of Empire

The Victorians liked to say that the sun never set on the British Empire because it was always shining on some part of the globe which was British. Of course, they also liked to think that the Empire would go on for ever, but Empires don’t do that, and the British one was no exception.

Sunset in the east . . . and the Middle East

Churchill hated the idea of “giving up” India, but Gandhi had been campaigning for the British to quit India ever since the Amritsar Massacre back in 1919 (see Chapter 21 for the details on this appalling incident). When Attlee came into power, he decided the time had come for the British to go home.

The problem was that Gandhi wanted a single India, with both Hindus and Muslims, but the Muslims wanted a separate country to be called Pakistan. Where was its border to be? And what about the people who would now be on the “wrong” side of it? Attlee sent Lord Mountbatten out to India to sort things out. Mountbatten decided to partition India and fast - a year ahead of schedule. About seven million people had to up sticks and move from one state to another. There was bound to be trouble, and there was. Almost half a million people were killed in riots against partition, and in 1950 an anti-partition Hindu shot Gandhi for agreeing to it.

Then there was Malaya. The British pulled out in 1948, but then found themselves fighting a war against communist guerrillas, which went on until 1960. Palestine was even trickier. The Palestinians thought there were too many Jewish refugees coming in, so the British stopped the influx of refugees. But these people had survived the Nazi death camps, and they weren’t going to be so easily dissuaded. So the British started locking them up, and, in retaliation, Jewish terrorist groups started killing British soldiers. The British had enough problems without trying to solve the entire Middle East, so they pulled out and handed the whole thing over to the United Nations. The UN set up the State of Israel. And found they couldn’t solve the problem either.

Wind of change in Africa

The British developed quite a taste for all these midnight independence ceremonies, with lots of officials in silly hats nobly hauling down the flag to the tune of The Last Post. In Kenya, nationalist guerrillas called Mau Mau helped persuade the British to get out, but the whites in Africa enjoyed lording it over the black Africans and they weren’t going to give it up without a struggle. The white South Africans had come up with an idea called apartheid, which said that whites should have all the best land, schools, houses, jobs, and so on, and blacks had to keep out unless they came in as labourers for the whites. In 1960, Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan went to Cape Town and told the white South Africans that they could not resist black majority rule for ever: A “wind of change” was sweeping through the continent. They hated it.

A few months later the South African police opened fire on an unarmed crowd of black Africans at Sharpeville and killed 67 people. Britain’s anger over the incident was so great that South Africa decided to declare independence and left the Commonwealth.

There were lots of whites in Rhodesia too. Britain said they could be independent but only if they agreed to black majority rule. Or, to put it another way, democracy. The white Rhodesians weren’t having that, so they went ahead and declared UDI (Unilateral Declaration of Independence) to defend their right of superiority over black people. Britain said UDI was illegal, and spent the next fifteen years imposing sanctions on white Rhodesia (or rather, imposing them and then turning a blind eye to British companies breaking them). It took until 1980 for Rhodesia finally to get black majority rule and change its name to Zimbabwe, and even then the whites still owned all the best land in the country.

Falklands fight; Hong Kong handover

By the 1980s, almost all of the Empire had gone except for a few little islands and outposts that had been kept on to provide good trivia questions. The best known one was Hong Kong which was due to return to Chinese rule in 1997. After a bit of tough talking with Beijing, the last governor, Chris Patten, folded up the flag, got on the royal yacht, and sailed into the sunset.

But before that happened, there was just time to fit in one last little colonial war, when Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands in 1982. Not many people in Britain knew where the Falklands actually were, but the people who lived there were British, and Argentina was a particularly nasty military dictatorship. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher sent the troops in to get the islands back. Which, after a short but bloody war, they did. Why anyone should want the Falklands in the first place was another matter entirely. “Like two bald men fighting over a comb” was how one Argentinian writer put it.

Commonwealth games

The British Empire morphed into a strange federation called the Commonwealth, with the British monarch at its head. All its members had in common was that they all spoke English because they had all once been ruled by the British. Yet in some odd way the Commonwealth worked. Okay, so South Africa stormed out in a huff because the Commonwealth didn’t like apartheid, and the Commonwealth organised sanctions against South Africa until the apartheid finally ended in 1991. But on the whole the British tend to like the Commonwealth, if only because the Commonwealth Games are the only way they can get a decent haul of sporting medals.

Losing an Empire, Finding a Role

“Great Britain,” said American statesman Dean Acheson in 1962, “has lost an Empire and has not yet found a role”. He had a point. Without her Empire, Britain could be one of three things:

A world power, with the atom bomb and a veto at the United Nations

A leading player in Europe, rather than the whole world

A small nation which no-one took seriously. (Don’t laugh, it had happened before. Austria and Spain had both been Great Powers, and have both declined.)

So, which was it to be? The following sections consider these possibilities.

A World power or just in de-Nile?

In 1956 the ruler of a large, poor Third World country took charge of his country’s only major economic asset. The country was Egypt, the ruler was Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser and the asset, which had been run by the British and French, was the Suez Canal.

London went ballistic. Conservative Prime Minister Anthony Eden had stood up to Hitler and Mussolini in the 1930s (well okay, he resigned from Chamberlain’s cabinet) and he wasn’t afraid to stand up to Nasser. Some people thought Eden was right; others thought he’d gone mad.

Angry young men

A small living room on a Sunday night. A youngish guy is sitting with no trousers on - his wife is ironing them. "I suppose", he says, "people of our generation aren't able to die for good causes any longer . . . There aren't any good, brave causes left." This is John Osborne's Look Back in Anger, the in-your-face new drama which hit the Royal Court Theatre in 1956 just in time for the Suez Crisis (see "A World Power or just in de-Nile?"). Osborne was one of a number of "Angry Young Men" who took a look at the drab, bankrupted Country Which Had Won The War and said "Is that it?" If you like plays about sad, disappointed people with no ideals or illusions left, then you could have a ball in the late 50s. In due course, the Angry Young Men became the Mildly-Irritated-by-Yet-Another-Andrew-Lloyd-Webber-Musical Middle Aged.

Three strikes and everybody's out!

In the 1960s and 1970s, the Trade Unions were very big news. Union leaders were as important as politicians, and they always seemed to be on strike no matter which party was in power. In 1969, Harold Wilson tried to limit the unions' powers, but the unions stopped him. Edward Heath had so much trouble from the miners and railway workers that he called a General

Election asking "Who Runs the Country? The Government or the Unions?" And lost. The 1979 Winter of Discontent was almost a General Strike, and it brought down James Callaghan's Labour Government. Mrs Thatcher came to power determined to break the power of the unions, and after a long fight with the miners, she did.

On October 31 1956, Britain and France invaded Egypt. The Egyptians didn’t stand a chance, especially when the Israelis attacked as well - but things aren’t always as clear cut as they seem. Huge protests broke out in Britain, and the Russians threatened a nuclear strike on London if the British didn’t pull out. US President Eisenhower refused to help the British and French. Britain’s currency was under huge international pressure, and Britain needed a billion dollar loan from America to save it. So Eden pulled out. Result: Total humiliation for the Brits (and French). Doesn’t sound much like a World Power, does it?

Into Europe?

The British had been fooling themselves for years that they didn’t need Europe. True, Churchill helped set up the Council of Europe in 1949, but it couldn’t actually do anything. Meanwhile the French and Germans had set up a Common Market with Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, and Luxembourg. Should the British join it too? They hummed and they hawed and they even set up their own rival the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) with a lot of other countries they didn’t actually trade with much. Finally, in 1962 Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan decided to bite the bullet and apply to join the Common Market. Except he couldn’t because the French vetoed Britain’s entry. President de Gaulle thought that Britain was only a stalking horse for the Americans, and he wasn’t having that in “his” Europe.

It wasn’t until 1973 that Prime Minister Edward Heath was finally able to drag Britain kicking and screaming into the European Economic Community (EEC), which was the posh name for the Common Market, and even then the British held a referendum two years later to see if they really wanted to be in it. Then Mrs Thatcher (Conservative Prime Minister 1979-90) complained that Britain had been overcharged and demanded her money back. “European superstate will sell your daughters into slavery and make you eat straight bananas!” shrieked the British tabloid press, though as it turned out, it was Britain’s very own Mad Cow Disease (BSE) that posed the biggest threat to health, wealth, and the pursuit of happiness in Europe.

By the end of the Millennium all the countries of eastern Europe were applying to join the EU, and Britain was no closer to leading it than ever. Whatever new role the British found for themselves, “Leaders of Europe” wasn’t it.

What ARE those politicians up to?

Churchill became Prime Minister again in 1951, but he was too old and ill to achieve anything much. Anthony Eden (Prime Minister 1955-7) was just itching to take over and show everyone what he could do, which turned out to be very little. Lordly Harold Macmillan (Prime Minister 1957-63) was more upbeat:

“You’ve never had it so good!” he declared, and his War Minister (no namby-pamby “Defence” in those days), John Profumo, took him at his word. In 1963, it turned out Profumo had been having it good with a nude model called Christine Keeler, who had also been sleeping with a military attache at the Soviet Embassy. Profumo hadn’t actually been whispering any state secrets over the pillow, but he did lie about it to the House of Commons, so he had to go. (Mind you, if everyone who told a bit less than the truth in Parliament had to resign we’d be left with the Archbishop of Canterbury and the cleaners).

Protest and survive

The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) began in 1958 with protests outside the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston, and it grew into the biggest protest movement of the century: You could get the CND logo on banners, badges, even earrings. It got big name support, from the likes of philosopher Bertrand Russell and historian AJP Taylor. It was very big in the sixties and again in the eighties, when cruise missiles arrived from America. Women played a vital role keeping up a permanent protest round the perimeter fence of RAF Greenham Common. Did CND help end the Cold War? Probably not. But it did make everyone aware of just what these missiles could do, so in that sense it might have helped restrain the politicians. A bit.

Where was the Queen while all this was going on?

When Elizabeth came to the throne in 1952, everyone said this was going to be a "new Elizabethan" age. It wasn't. Elizabeth II has so little power she isn't even needed when there's a dead heat in an election. She does see ministers regularly and quiz them, and many Prime Ministers have found her questioning surprisingly sharp. But for the most part the monarchy is ceremony for tourists and a soap opera for the tabloids. Would Princess Margaret marry divorced Group Captain Peter Townshend? (No). Would Princess Margaret get divorced?

(Yes). Would Prince Charles, Princess Anne and Prince Andrew get divorced too? (Yes). Princess Diana had star quality, and the public grief when she died had to be seen to be believed; her messy divorce from Charles was evidence of public opinion turning against the royal family. The royals were in deep trouble and they knew it. They have survived worse, but by the end of the twentieth century there was a definite sense that the old respect for them, even for the Queen herself, had gone.

Labour pains

The Conservatives had been in power since 1951, and they didn’t seem to have much to show for it. “Thirteen wasted years” taunted Labour as the nation went to the polls in 1964, and the country seemed to agree - just. Labour was back in with a majority of four. The new Prime Minister was Harold Wilson (Prime Minister 1964-70; 1974-6), who wore raincoats, smoked a pipe, and spoke with a strong Yorkshire accent. There would be no more toffs in Downing Street during his leadership.

Harold Wilson gave honours to The Beatles, launched comprehensive schools for all and a visionary Open University, using all the latest technology of television and records so that everyone could get higher education. He was even in office when England won the World Cup, which he reckoned won him the 1966 election. But in other ways, Wilson didn’t do so well. Unemployment kept going up, and so did prices, so that in 1967 Wilson had to devalue the pound. “This will not affect the pound in your pocket!” he declared, but no-one believed him - and they were right.

Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath (Prime Minister 1970-4), changed the pound even more by making it decimal in 1971. A miners’ strike and a war in the Middle East forced Heath to cut the working week to three days. Sounds good, until you realise you’re only being paid for three days as well. Labour didn’t fare any better. In 1976 Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan (Prime

Minister 1976-9) even had to apply to the International Monetary Fund for a £2.3 billion loan. In 1979, the whole country seemed to grind to a halt when the public service workers all came out on strike in the Winter of Discontent - that meant picket lines at hospitals, no rubbish collections (so it all piled up in the street), and even a strike at the cemeteries so you couldn’t even have a grave to turn in. Callaghan faced a vote of No Confidence in the Commons, and he lost it. That meant he had to call a General Election, and he lost that too. So Conservative leader Mrs Margaret Thatcher moved into 10 Downing Street, and the country held its breath.


Margaret Thatcher grew up above her father’s shop in Grantham and learned about getting value for money by helping tot up at the end of the day. She applied the same idea to politics. When she was elected in 1979, she spoke about spreading peace and harmony, but there wasn’t much of that in the years that followed:

Privatisation. Thatcher started off by privatising all the industries that Attlee had nationalised after the war, to mixed public opinion.

Cruise Missiles. When US President Ronald Reagan started to get tough with the Soviet Union, Thatcher ignored massive public protests and let him station American nuclear missiles in Britain.

● Strikes. Thatcher altered the law to make it much more difficult for unions to go on strike. In 1984, the miners did strike, partly to save their pits from being closed down - coal was rapidly becoming obsolete - and partly to challenge her government. She fought back, using mounted police. The miners had to give in. Their industry virtually disappeared.

● The GLC. When Thatcher didn’t like the way London’s Labour-controlled local council, the Greater London Council (GLC), attacked her, she simply closed it down.

● The Falklands. Thatcher was actually losing popularity fast when the Argentinians invaded the Falkland Islands in 1982 (see “Falklands fight; Hong Kong handover” earlier in this chapter). She immediately sent the troops down to get them back, and her firm action made her very popular. Wisely she cashed in on this - she called an election soon after and won it easily.

Margaret Thatcher was the longest-serving Prime Minister of the century, but the longer she was in power, the more she was in trouble. For one thing, her party could never agree about Europe. Some of her ministers got tired of Britain always being in a minority of one in Brussels. In 1990, her Foreign Secretary, Geoffrey Howe, resigned in protest and made a devastating resignation speech attacking Thatcher’s style of leadership. By then, the economic boom had turned to bust, and thousands of people who had followed her lead and bought their own homes found that their houses weren’t worth the money they had paid for them. This was bad news for Thatcher, because these people were her core supporters. Then in 1990 she hit them with the Poll Tax.

The Poll Tax was a big mistake. It was meant to finance local services, but the way it worked meant that everyone paid at the same rate however rich or poor they were. The last time a poll tax was introduced it sparked off the Peasants’ Revolt (see Chapter 10 to find out how). The British hadn’t forgotten how to protest against an unfair tax. The protests against the Thatcher Poll Tax were the worst since the miners’ strike (see the previous section to find out about this). Even though the first Gulf War was brewing over the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the Conservatives decided she had to go, and her ministers went in one by one to tell her so.

After Thatcher

After the powerful figure of Thatcher, Conservative Prime Minister John Major (Prime Minister 1990-7) seemed a bit of an anticlimax. But he got the peace process going in Northern Ireland (see the section “Belfast blows up”) and set up no-fly zones to protect the Kurds in Iraq from attack by the Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. But he couldn’t control the anti-Europeans in his party. Meanwhile, Labour had been busy learning their lesson. They stopped insisting on nationalising everything and started looking smart and business-like. In the 1997 general election, Labour leader Tony Blair won a massive majority, became Prime Minister, and basically carried on where John Major had left off. No sudden tax rises, no sudden changes in policy. In 2003 he even went to war in Iraq.

Watching the telly

Everyone started buying TV sets after the Coronation was broadcast in 1953. To start with you had to make do with the BBC, where they spoke posh and always knew what was good for you better than you did. Independent Television (ITV) arrived in 1954; it was less posh and it even carried adverts. The British watched a mix of American programmes, like I Love Lucy or MASH, and home-grown shows like Doctor

Who or comedies such as Morecambe and Wise or Monty Python's Flying Circus.

Harold Wilson was probably the first politician to realise the power of television: He even appeared on Morecambe and Wise. When TV cameras were finally allowed into Parliament, politicians stopped making eloquent speeches - and sense - and started coming up with snappy soundbites just to get on the telly. Tough on crime, and tough on the viewers.

Disunited Kingdom?

The British are very conscious of which part of the country they come from.

The old rivalry between the north of England and the south got worse in the 1980s when the south boomed while the north was out of work. Then the British state which was put together so cleverly in the eighteenth century (if you’re not sure what I’m on about, see Chapter 15) began slowly to fall apart.

Black and British - and brown, and yellow

There have been black people in Britain since Tudor times but people usually put the starting point for really big-scale immigration into Britain at 1948, when the SS Empire Windrush brought the first batch of post-war immigrants over from Jamaica.

These people came because they had British passports and because Britain had invited them. British companies advertised in the Caribbean and Indian press for people to come to Britain to do the sort of menial jobs that the white British didn’t want to do. So they came.

Some British people were scared the new immigrants would “take their jobs.” In fact, the new arrivals kept coming up against a “colour bar”, which meant they often could not get work or lodgings. Many immigrants had to start up small corner shops or Chinese and Indian restaurants and takeaways. There was serious racial fighting in London’s Notting Hill in 1958 and race riots at Toxteth (in Liverpool) and Brixton (South London) in 1981. In 1993, a black teenager called Stephen Lawrence was murdered in London, and the police investigation was so badly handled that there was an inquiry, which found that the Metropolitan Police was “institutionally racist”.

That’s the bad side. On the plus side, Parliament passed a Race Relations Act in 1965 which outlawed racist speech and behaviour. Right-wing groups like the National Front or the British National Party have never won more than the occasional seat on a local council. It’s quite normal now to find mosques in city centres and some of the biggest Hindu and Sikh temples outside the Indian subcontinent are in London. It’s stupid to get complacent about these things, but on the whole the immigrant communities have integrated into Britain much more easily than anyone in 1948 could have predicted.

Belfast blows up

Most of Ireland had become independent from Britain in 1922 (see Chapter 21 to find out how) but six Ulster counties had chosen to remain part of the United Kingdom, and Irish Nationalists had never given up hope of bringing them into a united Ireland - whether they wanted to or not.

Rivers of blood

Enoch Powell was a maverick Conservative MP and classical scholar. In 1968, he made one of the most outrageous speeches about immigration ever made in Britain. If they didn't stop coloured people coming in, he said there would be death, destruction, and civil war. "Like the Roman", he said, "I seem to see the River Tiber foaming with much blood". The speech went down a storm with racist bigots, few of whom understood the classical allusions. The Conservatives sacked him, so he went and joined the Ulster Unionists. The Thames hasn't foamed with blood yet.

By 1968 there were serious problems in Northern Ireland. In Catholic areas, like Londonderry, the Protestants were rigging the electoral boundaries (“jerrymandering”) to keep control and to make sure their families got the best schools and houses. A Catholic Civil Rights movement started protesting against this but the Protestants attacked the protestors while the (Protestant) police stood by and watched. The next year Prime Minister Harold Wilson sent troops into Northern Ireland to protect the Catholics.

The nationalist - and Catholic - IRA (Irish Republican Army) saw their chance to get people interested in a united Ireland again. They started shooting British soldiers (even though the soldiers were there to protect the Catholics). The soldiers started turning against the Catholics, and the long, bloody Troubles began.

There are so many ghastly incidents from the Troubles that it’s difficult to know where to start. These are some of the most notorious:

1972: Bloody Sunday - British paratroopers open fire on a Civil Rights protest march in Londonderry and kill 13 people. The British blame the IRA.

1974: Birmingham - the IRA bombs two crowded pubs on the British mainland, killing seventeen people. The police have the bright idea of framing a group of entirely innocent people with the crime and keeping them in prison for sixteen years. Which leaves the actual bombers free to strike again.

1984: Brighton - the IRA bombs the hotel where Mrs Thatcher and her Cabinet are staying for their party conference. She escapes death by a whisker.

1987: Enniskillen - the IRA bombs a Remembrance Day parade in the small town in County Fermanagh.

1996: Canary Wharf and Manchester - after a ceasefire breaks down, the IRA place bombs which devastate London’s financial centre and Manchester’s shopping centre.

The issue of Northern Ireland was never going to be solved just by rounding up every terrorist because there would always be others to take their place. The only way out was to work out who Northern Ireland ought to belong to. In 1973 the British closed the Northern Ireland Parliament down and started endless talks to work out some sort of way in which the Protestants could share power with the Catholics. Not easy with people who sometimes refused to sit in the same room together. In 1974 the Protestants even stopped one attempt at powersharing by staging a general strike. In 1985 Mrs Thatcher allowed Dublin a tiny little say in Northern Ireland’s affairs, but the Unionists simply shouted “Ulster Says NO!” Very, very loudly.

In the 1990s, Prime Ministers John Major and Tony Blair managed to reach a deal with Dublin which allowed the paramilitaries to declare a ceasefire. Under this peace process they could all join in the new government if they decommissioned all their weapons. So you got a Northern Ireland government with a Unionist leader and a Sinn Fein education minister. It didn’t last. Here’s why:

Number of weapons decommissioned in Northern Ireland 1997-2000: 0

Tony Blair had to suspend the new Northern Ireland Assembly and impose direct rule from London again.

Scotland and Wales - sort-of Nations Once Again

They weren’t quite so violent about it as the Irish, but the Scots and Welsh were also putting in a bid to pull out of Great Britain plc. They called it devolution, which wasn’t quite independence, but was a bit more than allowing soldiers to wear kilts or leeks in their hats. When they had a referendum in 1978, both countries turned it down, but by 1997, the Labour government had taken up devolution. The Scots got a proper parliament, with a state opening by the Queen and the power to do pretty much everything except send out ambassadors and declare war. The Welsh got an assembly in Cardiff. It couldn’t do much, and it didn’t.

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