A Warning from History: It Is Nearly 30 Years since Jim Callaghan Spoke of a Sea Change in British Politics. We Are at a Similar Moment of Transition. Dominic Sandbrook Recalls the Crises of the Late 1970s and How Labour's Failure to Respond to Them Led to Disaster

New Statesman (1996), October 6, 2008 | Go to article overview

A Warning from History: It Is Nearly 30 Years since Jim Callaghan Spoke of a Sea Change in British Politics. We Are at a Similar Moment of Transition. Dominic Sandbrook Recalls the Crises of the Late 1970s and How Labour's Failure to Respond to Them Led to Disaster


It was towards the end of the 1979 general election campaign, with his Labour government limping towards defeat, that Jim Callaghan remarked to his chief policy adviser that it barely mattered what he said or did. "There are times, perhaps once every 30 years, when there is a sea change in politics," Callaghan said wearily. "1 suspect there is now such a sea change--and it is for Mrs Thatcher."

Three decades on, there is a growing consensus that another sea change is at hand. While Gordon Brown's success at his party conference has managed to hold off the plotters and conspirers for another few weeks, it is striking to reflect that his position remains much weaker than Callaghan's in 1979. Often cast as the incarnation of Britain's failings in the age of flares, Callaghan was nevertheless the most popular and trusted senior politician in the country. Unlike Brown, he ran well ahead of his Tory rival in the opinion polls. And even after the Winter of Discontent, Labour lagged behind the Tories by no more than 10 per cent.

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To a generation of new Labour activists, history began in 1979 with the collapse of Callaghan's government-a deserved reward, as they saw it, for old Labour's left-wing politics. Never mind that Callaghan was actually on the right of the Labour Party. To Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and their followers, he was an embarrassing dinosaur, a relic of the past they hoped the electorate would forget. A dedicated trade unionist from the provincial working classes, a poor boy who could never afford a university education, a bluff patriot who disdained trendy metropolitan permissiveness and shuddered at ostentatious displays of wealth, he would look bizarrely out of place on today's Labour front bench. Yet now Brown finds himself in a deeper hole than any that Callaghan ever inhabited. And however much they dread the Tories' return, old Labour loyalists must find it hard to suppress a smirk.

There can be no exact parallels between the crisis of the late 1970s and that of the late 2000s. Still, to echo Mark Twain, history may not repeat itself but it does rhyme. And at first glance the assonances between the late 1970s and the present are remarkable. War in the Middle East and on the edge of the old Russian empire sends oil prices rocketing. As inflation mounts, families struggle to meet their fuel bills and mortgage repayments. In the headlines: controversies over immigration, energy, the environment, scientific progress. On the television: endless costume dramas, Battlestar Galactica and Doctor Who. On the pitch: England fail to qualify for a major football tournament. And at Westminster, an exhausted, unpopular Labour government stumbles towards apparently certain electoral disaster.

Yet the superficial resemblances only take us so far. A common criticism of our political masters is that they lack a sense of history. But there is such a thing as being prisoners of history, a classic example being the obsession with the false analogies of Munich and appeasement that underpinned support for the war in Iraq. And the past has always been a problem for new Labour, not merely because they knew too little about it, but because they were obsessed with avoiding what they saw as the left-wing mistakes of the 1970s and 1980s.

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In truth, the comparison between the present crisis and that of the 1970s falls down almost immediately. One obvious point is that the economic mess of the 1970s was different in character, cause and degree. It did not start with the 1973 oil shock, as is often thought; its roots went back to Harold Wilson's heyday in the 1960s, when the figures for inflation, strikes and pay settlements began their ominous rise. Behind this lay two more serious problems.

First, there was the long-term sickness of the British economy. There was an overvalued pound, inept management, terrible labour relations and feeble productivity, all of which was a recipe for expensive, shoddy and uncompetitive goods.

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A Warning from History: It Is Nearly 30 Years since Jim Callaghan Spoke of a Sea Change in British Politics. We Are at a Similar Moment of Transition. Dominic Sandbrook Recalls the Crises of the Late 1970s and How Labour's Failure to Respond to Them Led to Disaster
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