Britain’s political earthquake

Carol Kennedy December 7 1981

Britain’s political earthquake

Carol Kennedy December 7 1981

Britain’s political earthquake


Carol Kennedy

It was the bookmakers, even more than the pollsters, who confirmed that one of the biggest land mines in British political history was about to explode under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s government last week. A day before the voters of Crosby went to the polls, two leading firms stopped taking bets on the byelection. So much money was being placed on former Labour education minister Shirley Williams to win for the new Social Democratic Party (SDP) that a gambler would have had to stake $23 to win just $2.30. After betting tax was deducted, one bookie explained, a winner would actually have lost money.

But by the small hours of Friday morning, as the seismic upheaval in party loyalties made its full, shattering impact, it was not the bettors—but Britain’s two main political organizations—who were counting their losses.

And the bookies were already making the SDP clear favorites to win the next general election, which must come by May, 1984.

Shirley Williams, 51, one of the founding “gang of four” ex-ministers who launched the SDP eight months ago in protest against Labour’s leftward drift, took 49.1 per cent of the vote. In the process she overcame a Tory majority of 19,272, winning by 5,289 votes over Conservative John Butcher. The anti-Tory swing was a resounding 25.5 per cent. Labour’s John Backhouse finished a humiliating third with a mere 9.5 per cent of the vote and, along with six fringe candidates (one representing the Cambridge University Raving Looney Society), forfeited his deposit.

In the unlikely event of Crosby’s voting pattern being repeated nationally, a BBC computer calculated, the Conservatives would retain a mere four seats out of 635 in the Commons. The SDP and its allies, David Steel’s Liberal Party, would have a majority of more than 500.

At the outset of her campaign, Williams gave herself only a “l-in-50” chance of winning. But she now returns

to Parliament in triumph—V-h years after losing her Labour seat—as the first Social Democrat elected to Westminster. Bill Pitt, who won Croydon Northwest for the SDP/Liberal alliance from the Tories in October, is a Liberal. The two linked parties are taking turns to contest byelections. Apart from Williams, the SDP has 23 MPs at Westminster, all but one defectors from Labour. Four more Labour MPs are contemplating the switch.

But Crosby will feature in the political history books for more than the people’s baptism of a new party, or even a huge anti-government swing. Other midterm protest votes, such as the Liberals’ capture of the Tory seats of Orpington in 1962 and Sutton in 1972, represented even greater percentage swings yet eventually returned to the fold. But at Crosby, even more than marginal Croydon, the official Opposition party suffered the loss of almost as many votes as the unpopular government—24.9 per cent. Voters were plainly pronouncing a plague on both old political houses.

To seasoned observers such as Peter

Jenkins of the Guardian, it looked like a fundamental rewriting of the political contours in the structure of class-ridden modern Britain. The pro-Tory Daily Mail, quoting a favorite SDP slogan, said, “The SDP-Liberal alliance is not just breaking the mould of British politics—it is dancing on its shattered fragments.”

Williams jubilantly quoted the 17thcentury poet John Dryden: “’Tis well an old age is out and time to begin a new.”

The alliance,shedeclared,was nothing less than a crusade against the “growing extremism” of both major parties.

Certainly the voters in Crosby, for 63 years an archetypal Conservative dormitory riding north of Liverpool, were handed a clear-cut choice. Both main parties fielded a candidate tailormade to their current ideologies. In John Butcher, a 39year-old accountant, the Tories wheeled in an Identikit Thatcherite. Staunchly but haplessly Butcher defended the government’s economic record: nearly three million unemployed, mounting company bankruptcies and inflation at 11.7 per cent. But for all its prosperous profile— Crosby’s population is 60 per cent professional, seven out oof 10 people own their homes—unemployment has |risen by 80 per cent since

Thatcher took office and jobs |were the prime byelection


Butcher also suffered from being a “no name” challenging a “big name,” as one com-

mentator unkindly put it. Desperately, he haunted the railway stations each morning, nervous smile fixed in place, thrusting his hand at the heedless commuters hurtling past him. When one 18year-old announced she was voting for “Shirley,” the Tory candidate diffidently inquired why. “Because I’ve heard of her,” came the crushing reply.

The Labour candidate, an obscure but engagingly witty mathematics teacher of 28, received more favorable treatment. But he was fatally disabled by his support for the policies urged by leftwing dissident Tony Benn—unilateral nuclear disarmament, abandoning the European Community and wholesale

nationalization. As the bitter postmortems began, shadow home secretary Roy Hattersley blamed the Bennites for their divisive effect on Labour, and for fostering the image of extremism. The prime minister was reduced to pointing out that nearly 23,000 voters had remained loyal to the Tories at a “difficult time.” But she spurned suggestions that the government might change its tough economic stance, which this week will see the unveiling of a further $4 billion in Social Security cuts.

Both parties fastened on Williams’ personal popularity in their desperate quest for an alibi. Even The Times, taking the unusual step of urging her election in an editorial, allowed that “it is hard to think of any other politician today who can inspire the warmth and trust that she does.” Observer Political Editor Adam Raphael called her “the golden girl of British politics.”

Before Thatcher’s 1979 victory, Williams, a divorced Roman Catholic (30 percent of Crosby voters are Catholic), was often talked of as Britain’s most likely first woman prime minister. Fast-talking and highly articulate, she has far more of the common touch than Thatcher, despite her more eminent background. She is the daughter of two upper-middle-class intellectuals, author Vera Brittain—whose First World War classic Testament of Youth is enjoying boom sales following a TV adaptation—and Sir George Catlin, who taught political history for a time at Montreal’s McGill University.

Williams is tousle-haired and incorrigibly careless of her personal appearance. She once told a women’s magazine that she takes only 10 minutes to dress, and pioneer MP Lady Astor admonished her: “You will never get anywhere in politics with that hair.” She is also the despair of her aides, being perpetually

late for appointments or, on one famous occasion, taking the wrong train to a political convention. Yet a former close Labour associate recalls that in contrast her brain is very clear and she has “total intellect and honesty.”

The combination clearly paid off. When the results were complete political commentators were confident that “something bigger is going on” than the familiar midterm protest vote. In particular, says Malcolm Rutherford of the Financial Times, the Labour Party has failed to adapt to the social changes that it itself accomplished.

Where this new classless vote will go in a national election is anybody’s guess. The alliance will no longer have the virtue of novelty by 1984. It has still not resolved the question of who will lead it nor has it shaped a solid manifesto. In the meantime, as Britain’s shaken political leaders look ahead, their one consolation is that not even the whirlwind vote-catcher Shirley Williams can be in 635 different ridings at once.