It Was 20 Years Ago Today

No, not the Beatles track (that one was actually 45 years ago now) but, in displaying my anorak tendencies in spades, I fess up  to having just spent a housework day half-watching BBC Parliament’s 12-hour-long  marathon rebroadcast of the 1992 General Election. Despite it being history, its relevance as a reference point to politics today was striking.

The initial problem was to get past the ‘time warp’ aspect of big hair and big glasses, women’s blouses and colourful floral ties that date it so much. That and John Snow’s semi-mechanical ‘swingometer’ still in early stages of development. People you thought were always part of the establishment popped up as new boys—like David (‘two brains’) Willets, Mandy (complete with dodgy ‘tache) and Eric Pickles, who already looks like he couldn’t possibly get much fatter. Emma Nicholson, re-elected in Devon gushed about Major and convincing him to get more women elected (just 3 years before she defected to the Lib-Dems, citing Westminster Tory ‘old boy’ networks). Though it seems piffling now, much was made of an increase to 59 women MPs, 20 of them Tories. Out of 650!

The raft of familiar faces shown were startling in their youthfulness, including Ashdown and Kennedy, Redwood and Portillo, Gordon Brown & Brian Wilson. All were quizzed by compere David Dimbleby at the helm, but with a deference that today would seem Victorian in its politeness.

Fresh-faced Iain MacWhirter, anchoring in Scotland spoke of “everyone eating large amounts of humble pie” after Tories—against all expectations—held their 9 Scottish seats and added two. He interviewed an equally youthful Galloway who (alone) predicted Kinnock would stand down and argued Labour must extend a hand of friendship to SNP to use the Constitutional Convention as Tories were laughing at the disunity among their opponents over any constitutional change.

Canon Kenyon Wright claimed “the will of the Scottish people contined to be massively thwarted” while David Steel, interviewed in his Ettrickbridge fastness, felt Jim Sillars, having persuaded the SNP to stay away from the Constitutional Convention, might have less influence now his “Free by ’93” had proved such a damp squib and himself had lost the hard-won Govan seat. Sillars’ interview showed him more moderate and measured than either his reputation or his more recent utterances.

Alex did a statesmanlike job in his acceptance speech. 20 years younger, he delivered with the same impressive balance he exhibits today a claim that the people of Scotland would not long stand being ruled by those for whom they did not vote. But most convincing of all in Scotland was a nebbish but poised Donald Dewar who, while dismissing civic disobedience as a tactic flatly stated that the Tories had no mandate to rule in Scotland and that they would come to regret it if they ignored that fact.

Long ago as it was, the sheer surprise to all (including Tories, though the senior ones denied it) that Labour didn’t win and that Major was back in with a working majority of 21. But, seen from today’s perspective, he did less well and Kinnock did much better than the story of the day. Both polls and papers had been predicting a Labour win and the anti-Thatcher, anti-poll tax sentiments were still running high.

But this was also the era of the ‘loony left’ and Labour were still on the long journey back from 1983’s electoral oblivion when they punted what Gerald Kaufman waspishly observed to be “The Longest Suicide Note in History” as their manifesto. Kinnock, although he had brought them back from the brink, had indulged in some odious triumphalism in Sheffield (“Well, all right!” repeated from the podium to rapturous applause— to no discernable purpose). Within 24 hours of the result Kinnock stood down.

As this was the era when Middle Britain emerged from the class war, many started to expect more from politicians than left/right doggerel and cant. Blair and Brown were MPs but it would take the interregnum of the decent John Smith to lay foundations for what became the immensely electable New Labour who cottoned on to such things and effectively stole the Tories traditional clothes.

So while Labour did make serious progress—actually their 2nd-best improvement up to then, they won only 44 of the 94 seats required to form a government and which all agreed they were on-track to achieve. Polls and newspapers had much to answer for. In the event, not only did the Tories scrape home in many target seats but they sustained their 43% share of vote and, watching the Lib-Dems slide from 23% to 18% and slip back by 2 seats, could argue they won even bigger against them than against Labour.

Paddy Ashdown made a brave face of it but was miles off in predictions, seeing his own policies as realities and claiming “There is now a real question whether Labour can ever challenge for government”. Dennis “The Beast of Bolsover” Skinner would have no truck with this and was quite clear that, with no concession to Lib-Dems or their PR but with a strong dash of old-time class warfare, “Labour could win the next election hands down”.

The Lib-Dems would actually make good use of time but not at Westminster. Sally Magnusson down at the Yeovil Liberal Club found them somewhere between miffed and defiant. But through the nineties and noughties, they made a strong play in the North and West of England from grass roots, electing hundreds of councillors to city halls from Liverpool to Doncaster. This platform became one from which they could make their strongest showing to date in 2010.

But if the English and Welsh were baffled how Major pulled this out of his hat, there was a right scunner among the Scots. Although 49 Labour MPs were elected (along with 11 Tories and 9 Lib-Dems) no-one had a sense of progress, nor of being protected from either Thatcherism or nukes on the Clyde. The ‘standing-still’ of the SNP at 3 seats concealed a huge rise in their vote, doubling to over 690,000 and putting them in striking distance of the three further seats In five years, losing them began a long dark Tory night.

In 1992 Scotland still registered as just a region of Britain—albeit a quirky one. Dimbleby referred to Berwick as “the northernmost constituency in Britain” and proceeded to show a picture of Alnwick Castle. What was equally amusing was the obvious spin and blind party loyalty indulged in by everyone when discussing results: spin was not a Blairite invention—he & Mandy simply perfected it.

But it is only with 20/20 hindsight that the events of the last few years—let alone the Scottish Parliament itself—could have been predicted from the events of that night in 1992. Nobody (with honourable exceptions from Dewar and Galloway) seemed to have a clue what even the next five years might bring. Altogether, it was a lesson in how little even the best informed and those paid to anticipate can predict our future.

About davidsberry

Local councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Stood for the Scottish Parliament 2011; lost by 151 votes.
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