D-Day

Farrows was the corner shop and when I was very young and at home, I would often be sent down to the shop for an item or two. On weekends when my mum was baking or something, I would frequently be sent down two, three times on the trot when she realised she had run out of a particular ingredient. A bag of sugar. Half a dozen eggs. A packet of salt. And then I would also go down there when I had some money to spend. I still dream sometimes that I am in the shop, queuing up and ready to pay for something.

It seems as if we had more freedom in those days to run around as we pleased, without helicopter parents monitoring our every move. But it was still a small world, those few roads that formed a map of my universe. Less than a kilometre down to the park; the same distance – 800 metres – to my primary school. A ten minute walk, if that. A tiny world, constrained by hills and the main road into town; I was never more than a few minutes from home.

The fifteenth of February 1971 was D-Day, decimalisation day, and I was excited to obtain my first coin. This meant I had to take a sixpence (6d) and spend it on something worth two New Pence (2p), so that I would receive a half New Pence in change. Sixpence was about average in terms of spending money that might burn a hole in my pocket. My grandad would give me threepence when we visited – half a sixpence, as it were; sometimes you’d get a tanner (also sixpence) or a whole shilling. Very rarely two whole shillings in pocket money. That’s ten pence in new money.

So I ran (always running) all the way down to Farrows with sixpence burning a hole in my pocket and I picked up a… well, what was it? I want to say Mars Bar, but it might have been a Milky Way. Anyway, it cost two New Pence, and I solemnly handed over my old sixpence and received a shiny new half penny in return.

February fifteenth 1971 was, then, the first occasion on which I received an entirely useless, more or less unspendable, copper coin in change. Of course, there was back then a range of half-penny chews (the blackjacks and fruit salads, the sugar mice and the prawns), but the point on that day was to get my fist around a shiny new coin. 

I still feel pleasure when I get a shiny new-ish coin. I still have a pot of unspendable copper coins. It probably costs more to make a penny than a penny is worth and the half pence coin was abolished years ago, and was missed by nobody.

A lot of people suspected (rightly) that retailers would take the opportunity to increase prices when decimalisation came in. The same phenomenon occurred in France and other countries of Europe when the €uro was introduced. What cost five Francs suddenly cost €1 and everything was 20% more expensive.

And what became of the Saucy Tanner, that precursor of the Cornetto: a cone of plastic with ice-cream in it, with a ball of bubblegum concealed at the bottom? Did it become the Saucy Two and a Half Pence?

I embraced decimalisation, though. I was forever confused by the lingering persistence of pounds and pints, and the brutal insistence on miles instead of kilometres. The way the British never quite took to metric measurements was all the sign you ever needed that our relationship with the EU was problematic, to say the least. I remember when the kids were born and people asked me the birth weights, I would give the answer in kilograms and then say something sarcastic in response to the inevitable question. This conservative clinging to the past is upsetting because it represents that deeper Conservatism, that working class Toryism that afflicts the country and our politics. How much is a pint of milk?

1974 and all that

Harold_Wilson_Number_10_officialI’ve been thinking, over the past few days, about the governments of the 60s and 70s, and the parallels between Ted Heath’s snap election in 1974 and the recent debacle created by Theresa May.

The February 1974 election, which ended in a hung parliament, was the first held after Britain joined the EU in January 1973. This latest election was the first held after the vote to leave.

In February 1974, Ted Heath, Conservative Prime Minister, addressed the nation:

Do you want a strong Government which has clear authority for the future to take decisions which will be needed? […] This time of strife has got to stop. Only you can stop it. […] It’s time for you to say to the extremists, the militants, and the plain and simply misguided: we’ve had enough. There’s a lot to be done. For heaven’s sake, let’s get on with it. (wikipedia)

The nation answered with a shrug. Heath’s tactic had backfired and when he unsuccessfully tried to negotiate a coalition with the Liberals (assuming also support from the Unionist MPs), Harold Wilson became the leader of a minority government.

Wilson called another election in October and won a narrow majority of 3 seats. This was the government that eventually creaked to an end under the leadership of Jim Callaghan in 1974, with sick MPs being wheeled in from hospital for Commons votes.

Regardless of whether you believe the various conspiracy theories surrounding the Wilson government, it’s fair to say that his governments of the 60s and 70s both faced strenuous opposition from the right wing press and were undermined by those ‘enemies within’ in the financial sector. Wilson himself claimed that he was undermined by elements within MI5, and there is a longstanding rumour about a possible military coup, with Lord Mountbatten touted as PM. Was the army takeover of Heathrow Airport in 1974 a dry run? Was the cabinet office  and waiting area bugged (almost certainly yes, since the Profumo affair of 1963)?

Whatever happened, the right wing press have painted the 1970s in dark colours ever since as a way of promoting neoliberal ideology and destroying faith and participation in the trade union movement.

When people wax nostalgic about Labour governments passed, they usually turn to the post-1945 government and the creation of the NHS and the welfare state. But look at the social reforms Wilson achieved in the 60s:

  • abolished capital punishment
  • liberalised censorship laws
  • liberalised divorce laws
  • liberalised abortion laws
  • liberalised law on homosexuality
  • created the Open University
  • introduced comprehensive education
  • took steps towards gender and racial equality

And:

“1974-76, saw further reforms in education, health, housing, gender equality, pensions, provisions for disabled people and child poverty.” (source)

Finally, and most importantly, under Wilson’s government, the property speculators were squeezed until the pips squeaked and taxes were high, high, high, which kind of explains why landlords, British industrialists, and bankers had an interest in creating as much economic conflict as possible. The 60s and 70s were characterised by lots of industrial action, but as hard as those workers fought, the result was a more equal society and better pay and conditions for everyone. So of course the billionaires behind the right wing press like to paint the 70s as the ‘bad old days’.

The current situation has so many parallels with 1974, you can’t help but wonder if this will play out the same way. At the very least, an October election might be on the cards. But another left wing Labour government being undermined by the bankers, the oligarchs and the security services? Corbyn has “MI5 Plot” written all over his face.