1 January 2003

“What was the blue hinterland of England has been blown to bits by the Tories themselves. It’s breathtaking. Nothing planned by Labour could have equalled the damage inflicted on themselves” (culled from the uk.politics.misc newsgroup in November 2002)

Many have traced what we know as “Blairism” – the general movement within the Labour Party which has more to do with social democracy and cultural modernism than traditional socialism – back to 1963, when Harold Wilson (then opposition leader) made his famous “White Heat of Technology” speech, asserting that he would have no automatic respect for old methods of working and trade union organisation simply because they were Labour tradition.

How far back can one trace the pre-history of “Thatcherism” – still the best general term for the Conservative Party’s shift from traditionalism and consensus politics to radical monetarism and market-driven Atlanticism? It is instructive to look at how the 1954 Television Bill, which would bring commercial television to Britain the following year, passed through Parliament, because it was (to my knowledge) the first instance of Tories being forced to vote in favour of something that would prove quite radically destructive to the old paternalistic order, even if they may have instinctively opposed it.

Although the breaking of the BBC’s monopoly on broadcasting had been discussed as early as 1948, the Beveridge Committee under Clement Attlee’s Labour government dismissed such claims, with only Selwyn Lloyd advocating the licensing of commercial broadcasters.

Soon after this, however, the Tories were returned to power in 1951, and the following year the nascent NME reported that the licensing of commercial radio in the UK was being considered, ironically adding that there were “no plans for commercial television”. Britain would eventually be one of the very few countries to license commercial TV *before* it had commercial radio.

In the early 1950s, the Tory party developed an internal split that arguably anticipated that which would develop in the 1980s between the monetarists and the wets, the Friedmanites and the Keynesians. The polarisation was between a group of MPs who had allied themselves with businessmen to lobby for commercial television (Norman Collins, who left the BBC in 1950 after he was denied a promotion to Director of Television, campaigned very prominently to break down the Corporation’s monopoly) and patricians like Lord Hailsham (father of the present-day Tory MP Douglas Hogg) who opposed commercial TV on the grounds of the overt brashness, egalitarianism and immorality which they feared it would introduce into Britain.

The Labour Party, now returned to opposition, was overwhelmingly opposed to commercial broadcasting, reflecting its general suspicion of commercialism and the market economy.

Sir Winston Churchill, now restored as Prime Minister, might in another world have scuppered commercial TV at the start – he famously referred to TV as a “tuppenny Punch and Judy show” and initially opposed the televising of the 1953 Coronation, before the Queen herself brought him round to it. But he allowed his wariness of the BBC to override his fogeyish suspicion of the new – he had had a very frosty relationship with Lord Reith dating back to Reith’s assertion of the BBC’s independence from government during the General Strike in 1926, and he also held grudges based on the BBC’s refusal to give him airtime in the 1930s to express his controversial views on Indian policy and rearmament.

After several months of silence on the matter, Churchill eventually announced in 1952 that “the longer I have studied this matter and watched the development in the last few months, the more I am convinced that the present monopoly should not continue”.

A White Paper in May 1952 declared, “in the expanding field of television, provision should be made to permit some element of competition”. Petrified at the threatened erosion of his old values, Lord Reith made a speech in the House of Lords, which has gone down in history as the epitome of his hardline moralistic worldview.

“Somebody introduced Christianity into England,” he thundered, “and somebody introduced smallpox, bubonic plague and the Black Death. Somebody is minded now to introduce sponsored broadcasting … Need we be ashamed of moral values, or of intellectual and ethical objectives? It is these that are here and now at stake.”

Labour adopted the maintenance of the BBC monopoly as party policy, and a cross-party anti-commercialism group called the National Television Council was formed, bringing together High Tories like Lord Hailsham and Labour MPs like Christopher Mayhew, a particularly vociferous left-wing opponent of commercial TV (although Mayhew would join the Liberal Party in 1974, pre-empting the subsequent SDP breakaway which was itself very much a reaction to overt hardline socialism within the Labour Party).

After Clement Attlee – by then opposition leader – had declared on 15th June 1953 that the Labour Party would restore the BBC monopoly on television if it was returned to power, the Tories became all the more convinced that commercial TV was the way ahead. Perhaps influenced by reports of the sponsors’ messages interrupting American TV coverage of the Coronation, also in June 1953, the government bowed to the anti-commercialism lobby to ensure that individual programmes would not be sponsored, and that the commercials would be strictly separate from the actual programmes. This would remain the case until 1991.

Even with this concession, however, the Tory government was aware that at least some of its more traditionally minded MPs would defy their own party leadership and vote against commercial TV if they were allowed to. The party did not have a great majority, and at the time a defeat in the Commons was considered reason enough for a government to resign; the second Attlee government of 1950-51, which had a majority of only 5 seats, had collapsed for this reason.

So there was no free vote in the Commons on 4th March 1954; the whips were enforced with a rod of iron to ensure that every Tory MP voted in favour of the licensing of commercial television in the UK. It would be fascinating to know which MPs would have voted against it if a free vote had been granted, but after nearly 50 years I suppose we can only ever make some educated guesses. The Bill was passed by 296 to 269, a majority of 27 votes – there might well have been more than 27 Tory MPs in 1954 who were instinctively opposed to commercial TV, but perhaps we will never really know.

Even after this, there were rebellions from both sides of the house. At the report stage on 31st May 1954 William Ross, the Labour MP for Kilmarnock, placed an amendment to ban adverts on Sundays, Good Friday and Christmas Day, which was supported by Cyril Black, the puritan Tory MP for Wimbledon. Black also voted in favour of an amendment to ban any advertisement that promoted the sale or consumption of intoxicating liquor.

Cyril Black would later lend his voice to the backlash against Sir Hugh Greene’s liberalisation of the BBC – in the 1960s he was one of those who criticised the radio comedy series “Round The Horne”, a counter-movement which on one occasion succeeded in changing the Biblical allusions used by the character of J. Peasemold Gruntfuttock, quite a rare concession from Greene. In the same era, he would also campaign vociferously against the decriminalisation of homosexuality.

But neither he nor anyone else could reverse the impact of commercial TV on the UK; the Television Act became law on 30th July 1954, and after a slow start commercial TV would come to embody the new, upbeat consumer society of Harold Macmillan’s economic boom in the late 1950s. The “never had it so good” generation were also the commercial TV generation, and their concerns were subtly but crucially different from those of the Tory patricians who had opposed commercial TV altogether, although it would take another quarter of a century before this was fully realised.

The influence of commercial TV pretty much forced the BBC to modernise its television output in the early 60s, leading to ground-breaking programmes like “TW3”, “Z-Cars”, “Steptoe and Son” and the religious discussion series “Meeting Point” (the first programme ever to inspire Mary Whitehouse’s ire, although typically she had not actually seen it herself). But the absence of commercial radio within the UK – only in the evenings did Radio Luxembourg broadcast across the ether – allowed BBC radio to become complacent and increasingly outmoded, isolated from the flow of the times in the way that its TV output had been in the 50s.

On 29th March 1964 Radio Caroline brought all-day American-style pop radio to the UK for the first time, and rapidly won a massive audience, but in October that year Labour returned to power for the first time in 13 years, and established a more statist approach to broadcasting than the Tories had favoured; they had long since abandoned their promise to abolish commercial TV altogether, but they nipped the Tories’ advanced plans for a second commercial channel in the bud.

With the Labour government – especially in the person of Postmaster-General Tony Benn – passionately opposing the offshore radio stations, the opposition Tory party took the pirates’ cause to heart in 1965. Interestingly, many of the Tory MPs defending offshore radio represented seats in East Anglia, close to the North Sea where the pirate ships were located.

In February 1965 Sir Harmar Nicholls, the Tory MP for Peterborough, chaired the National Broadcasting Development Committee, which pressed the Labour government to licence commercial radio on land. Nicholls had become a director of Radio Luxembourg in 1963 and would remain so until his death, and it is reasonable to assume that Luxembourg, most of whose programmes were recorded in London, would have bid for a British commercial radio licence had they been offered in the mid-60s.

In March 1965 Ian Gilmour, the Tory MP for Central Norfolk, spoke out in favour of commercial radio in the Commons to “Tory cheers”, while Eldon Griffiths, Tory MP for Bury St Edmunds, pointed out that “the large majority of those under 30” listened to the pirates.

Once again, the Establishment (there were at least two peers on the committee Nicholls had chaired) was putting aside its old fear of Americanisation in favour of the pure profit motive and the desire to break down a monopoly.

In 1966, Labour were returned to power with a greatly-increased majority of 97 seats, but Sir Harmar Nicholls managed to hold his seat by only 3 votes, following seven recounts. A friend of the present writer growing up in Peterborough at the time was disappointed by Labour’s failure to gain the seat (the defeated candidate, Michael Ward, eventually won it in October 1974) but he, like many of his contemporaries, was a keen pirate radio listener and was saddened by the Labour government’s Marine Broadcasting Offences Act of 1967, which made the offshore stations illegal.

Support for radio deregulation now became a key battleground on which the Tories could win the support of young, liberal-minded voters who were naturally inclined towards Labour; 18-year-olds would have the vote for the first time in 1970, and Edward Heath’s sacking of Enoch Powell after his “Rivers of Blood” speech greatly increased the Tory party’s credibility among the less right-wing floating voters.

My friend who was campaigning for Labour in Peterborough in 1970 recalls that he “cursed Wilson” during the run-up to the election when the government did something that has never happened before or since in Britain: it jammed a radio station, the offshore pirate Radio Nordsee International.

This would have warmed the hearts of the party’s Communist sympathisers (jamming being the favoured Eastern European way of blocking out the BBC World Service and Voice of America) and it proved costly; Labour not only suffered an unexpected defeat, but it failed to win anything like the predicted massive share of the new teenage vote. Indeed, many baby boomers (including at least one of this writer’s relatives, in Dorset South) voted Tory in 1970 for the first and only time in their lives.

Most interestingly of all, the Tories not only held Peterborough, but enjoyed a higher-than-average swing in their favour throughout the east of England, in the constituencies where reception of Radio Nordsee International had been strongest. They could certainly have claimed that the “pirate factor” had swung Ipswich in their favour; here they defeated Labour by 13 votes, as the Suffolk constituency succeeded Peterborough as the most marginal in the country.

Until its famous 1972 U-turn, the Heath government operated “Selsdonomics” (after a suburb of Croydon where the shadow cabinet had met to settle their policy for the 1970 election), a proto-Thatcherite form of monetarism, which broke away from the post-war consensus. Appropriately enough, the Tories had just won the support of a much brasher, more youthful, more Atlanticist section of the electorate than their traditional core vote, pointing to the demographic shifts that would be so significant in the formation of what we know as “Thatcherism”.

In 1972 the Tories introduced the Sound Broadcasting Bill, which inspired one rebellion on the floor of the House. In Committee, the Government had been defeated over a clause, which allowed newspaper companies to run radio stations. On Report stage the Government moved to reintroduce the clause, but faced a rebellion from the two members of the Committee who had defeated it – John Gorst and Wilfred Proudfoot.

Gorst, the Tory MP for Hendon North, was then a strong free-market campaigner who was later the principal defender of the Grunwick boss George Ward, and ultimately resigned the Tory whip shortly before he left the Commons at the end of the Major era in 1997 (following boundary changes, the new Hendon seat subsequently fell to Labour). Proudfoot, the Tory MP for Brighouse and Spenborough, came from a family who own supermarkets in Yorkshire, and was the first MP to give a job to Christine Hamilton.

The Sound Broadcasting Act 1972 generally went through Parliament with little fuss; there were many more important issues at the time (rising unemployment, industrial strife, the Northern Ireland situation and the admission of Ugandan Asians to Britain come to mind) and the significance of the Act as a proto-Thatcherite legislation introduced at a time when the Tory government was reverting from Selsdonomics back to Butskellism appears only in hindsight. Land-based commercial radio began in the UK with LBC and Capital Radio in October 1973, by which time the Heath administration was rapidly crumbling, set to take a crushing fall following the “three-day week” early the following year.

After a decade of Thatcherism, the Broadcasting Bill introduced in 1989 seemed to encapsulate and tie up many of the movement’s dominant threads – for me, it is still the quintessential document of “Conservatism opposing conservatism”. Its themes – deregulation of content, more consumer choice, less state intervention, a general ethos of “enterprise culture” – ran through much other legislation of the era, and had already been set out in a Green Paper of 1987 which led to a White Paper in 1988.

These had declared in no uncertain terms that the practice of “simulcasting” – broadcasting the same programmes on FM and AM simultaneously – had to end, forcing commercial stations to split their services (usually into a contemporary pop station and a Gold station) and initially inspiring the BBC to conceive the original Radio 5 in a rush, as if they privately feared that the government would remove the frequencies if they didn’t do something with them pretty soon.

The government set out its plans for three national commercial radio stations in the 1990s – creating a situation where the number of national radio stations, static for 23 years, would double in only four-and-a-half years from 1990-95. In 1987, the general deunionisation of British society in the 1980s brought an end to the Musicians’ Union practice of “needletime”, paving the way for widespread 24-hour music radio.

By 1989 there had been considerable demographic shifts in the make-up of the parliamentary Conservative Party, where thrusting young businessmen concerned mainly with making money had succeeded many of the old “literal conservatives”. However, there was a “revenge of the wets” in the air at this time – the veteran backbencher Sir Anthony Meyer audaciously challenged Mrs Thatcher for the party leadership; he was easily defeated, but he had expressed the concerns of a sizeable wing of the party. Many moderate Tories also voted against the Poll Tax (officially called the Community Charge).

It was against this backdrop that three Conservatives voted against the Broadcasting Bill on its Second Reading – William Benyon (Milton Keynes), Sir Ian Gilmour (Chesham and Amersham) and George Walden (Buckingham). Gilmour had spoken out in support of commercial radio in 1965 when he was MP for Central Norfolk – it is a sign of how radically the party changed under Thatcher’s influence that he had once been more supportive of private enterprise than many of the old backbench paternalists, but by this time he was regarded as a moderate Tory and had been, in 1981, the first of the wets to be thrown out of the Thatcher cabinet, predating her massive “purge of the wets” following her landslide victory of 1983.

Benyon, Gilmour and Walden were all noted moderates, but it is probably a coincidence that they already represented seats in Buckinghamshire, a renowned Tory heartland whose county council would be the only one in England to remain under Tory control in the 1993 local elections, as the unpopularity of the Major government intensified. George Walden also voted for a Labour motion to commit the Bill to a Special Standing Committee.

On Report stage on 8th May 1990, Bill Walker (Tory MP for North Tayside) moved an amendment to restrict takeovers of licence holders, a vital part of the legislation which has since allowed Carlton and Granada to own all English ITV franchises. At the end of the debate, Walker attempted to return to his party’s general position and tried to withdraw the amendment, but Labour MPs refused to let him; in the vote George Walden was the only Conservative to support the amendment – Bill Walker voted against it.

The following day, 9th May 1990, yet another Tory MP from Buckinghamshire (Timothy Raison, who represented Aylesbury) moved an amendment to end party broadcasts on Channel 3 – as ITV was officially referred to in the Bill, with the intent that it would eventually be rebranded as such – but withdrew it without a vote.

When the Bill went to the House of Lords – by that time considered something of a repository of the older, less radical form of Conservatism – peers passed an amendment requiring “due impartiality” from Channel 3, which the government accepted. After a debate on 25th October 1990, in which the Conservative right made the expected accusations of bias, the Commons accepted the amendment, but five Conservatives voted against. These were:

Sir Ian Gilmour (Chesham and Amersham) Sir Charles Morrison (Devizes) Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills) George Walden (Buckingham) Gary Waller (Keighley)

The Bill suffered one defeat in the Lords, on an amendment to require Channel 3 to broadcast more education programmes. Not surprisingly, George Walden voted against overturning this amendment – Walden came through in 1990 as an articulate critic of his own party’s extreme deregulatory monetarist policies, and he arguably played his part in Thatcher’s downfall in November of that year.

Of course, the 1990 Broadcasting Act soon became law, the IBA passed into history, and the general drift of subsequent years has been overwhelmingly deregulatory. We currently have a Labour government planning a Communications Bill, which will set out a mass-media free-for-all, which would still have been totally unthinkable as Labour policy under Neil Kinnock’s leadership in 1990, when the party still had echoes of the Attlee years.

What does it all mean? What is the present political, social and cultural significance of all these things?

Well … suffice it to say that, when I hear prominent Tories (not least William Hague when he was party leader) talking about the “defence of the rural way of life” from the supposedly “urban government” of New Labour, I look at my Sky Digital system which enables me to access Asian movies, hip-hop videos and WWF wrestling in a very isolated rural environment indeed, and realise anew why the Conservative Party is in the position it is.

Floating voters will not stand for rank hypocrisy and double standards, and will avoid all parties, which display those tendencies. But that, I suppose, is the ultimate conclusion of Torycasting, a liberal internationalist policy developed for half a century within a party whose core members tend to be neither of these things.

The Times might have reported the slogan “No taxation without morris dancing” on a banner at the recent Countryside Alliance demonstration in London, but “no taxation without MTV” might have been more accurate, especially in the light of the cross-ownership between The Times and Sky (the only way to watch MTV in rural areas which do not have cable systems).

But then “no taxation without MTV” at a pro-hunting demonstration would have required honesty and the ability to come to terms with everything you have done, and there isn’t much room for that in Torycasting. The rest of us, however, tend to enjoy it. Even my friend in Peterborough all those years ago can now afford himself a wry smile as he surveys the Tory party’s self-inflicted wreckage. I think even some of their own supporters now realise it.

With thanks to David Boothroyd and Paul Whitehead, and historical acknowledgements (as ever) to Milton Shulman’s “The Least Worst Television In The World”.

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