>Into the small hours with the Iron Lady


I sat up till 1am sorting through paperwork with BBC4’s Margaret Thatcher Night on in the background. Oddly, the most compelling thing – perhaps because it dealt with British politics herself, rather than the Iron Lady herself – was the repeat of the rolling 1979 election night coverage. Just listening to the sound and not really looking at the weird clothes, more basic sets and graphics, it sounded entirely modern: exactly, the same tone, format and content as you can hear now, although perhaps a bit slower and more erudite in places. Who would have known that Cheltenham (then a safe-ish Tory seat, now a Liberal marginal) had an independent MP in the 1930s and 1940s?

The election was at lot closer than tends to be remembered now as views seem to be skewed with the hindsight that it led to 18 years of Conservative rule, ‘Thatcherism’, and the near collapse of the Labour Party. As the documentaries earlier in the evening had pointed out, Mrs T – although not exactly playing a blinder in the election campaign itself – managed to keep the radicalism of her beliefs safely under wraps. Conservative commentators in the studio like Peregrine Worsthorne are more fully bloodedly anti-state and anti-trade union, but somehow opponents around the table don’t seem to take what they say as a statement of serious intent. Most people interviewed on the street in vox pops backing the Tories just seem to want something different.

The old style psephology of the period with very limited computing power managed to pick up the basic pattern of the results and forecast the result impressively quickly and accurately, within the first dozen or so result coming in: the Tories were in with a comfortable majority driven by heavy swings in the South and Midlands, which got weaker the further North you went.

More interesting though were the undercurrents in British politics the election flagged, not apparent at the time: the relatively good performance of the Liberals (I was surprised the expression ‘tactical voting’ was used then), although having slip back from the 18-19% they had gained in 1974 and picked up only a few seats, it didn’t seem so at the time; the Ecology Party pick up a 1000 votes in Torbay, suggesting – very distantly – a potential for a viable Green Party; there is an emergent North-South and English-Scottish divide, but no one talks about these issues very much except to note the losses of the Scottish Nationalists to Labour. Another contemporary but not-so-contemporary echo is the presence of the (then declining) far right at the political margins.

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