Wednesday, 11 March 2015

A pivotal moment in history

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The death of James Molyneux (his obituary is here) reminds me of how the 1974-79 Labour Government ended not with a whimper but a bang.

James Callaghan's Labour Party might have won had he called an election in the autumn of 1978 but he lacked the courage to do so. Instead the 'Winter of Discontent' ensued. The Government, which had not had a majority in the House of Commons for a couple of years, had by the spring of 1979 been deserted by all the different Ulster Unionists, the SNP and the Liberals. Labour had even lost Gerry Fitt (a very lovely man) of the SDLP, who was usually very loyal to Labour. The government faced defeat in the House of Commons in a vote of confidence. 

At that point Frank McGuire said that he intended to attend. Frank McGuire was the semi-legendary independent MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone. He was the other Irish Catholic MP besides Fitt and kept a bar in his constituency called Frank's Bar. His decision was remarkable because though he had taken the oath and his seat (unlike Sinn Fein members for Fermanagh and South Tyrone before and after him) he had only attended the House a handful of times since his election. 

He was flown over in a Wessex helicopter and sat on the opposition benches, ignored by the other MPs who did not know who he was. As they went through the division lobby at last he was left alone in the chamber. The Labour Chief Whip went up to him and said, 
'Frank, are you not going to vote?'
to receive the reply, 
'No, I came to abstain in person.' 
The government lost the division by one vote, his. The government fell, an election was called and Mrs. Thatcher became Prime Minister. The rest, as they say, is history. Who now remembers James Callaghan?

That famous debate seems recent to me. The House was not televised in those days (that proved as Enoch Powell had foretold to be a disastrous mistake) but proceedings were broadcast on radio and Parliament was still a powerful organism, especially that one, where by 1977 the Labour government's tiny majority had disappeared after by-election losses. I remember listening to Deputy Prime Minister Michael Foot's marvellous speech and his jokes about the 'boy David' (the Liberal leader David Steel). Still, aDisraeli said, a majority is the best repartee and the Conservatives won the vote. I was in the Lower VIth, an ardent Tory, though one who couldn't suppress a visceral antipathy to Margaret Thatcher.

Frank McGuire died two years later and in a by-election the seat was taken by Bobby Sands, an IRA prisoner who was starvlng himself to death. It is a seat which swings between the Catholic and Protestant parties and was held by Sinn Fein at the last election with a majority of four votes. 

When the boundaries of Northern Ireland were first set it in 1914 it was intended that they would be redrawn by a boundary commission and they should have been. Sizable parts of Fermanagh and South Tyrone should have ended up in the Irish Free State, which became the Irish Republic. Had this happened the Catholics in Northern Ireland would have been far fewer than is the case and would have been largely confined to the Catholic parts of Belfast and Londonderry. This would have made them and the Provisional IRA much easier to deal with and the Troubles may never have happened or had they happened a military solution would have been much easier. 

The sell-out to the IRA by Tony Blair would thereby have been avoided.

7 comments:

  1. << I came to abstain in person >>. Wonderful line.

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  2. Abstaining in person, not only can't be misconstrued as uninterest, has great panache.

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  3. amazing story!

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  4. Who now remembers James Callaghan? Those whom he damaged by his acts of omission and commission, and by taking bribes of patronage if not pelf from Brussels. He broke his Oath of Office to the Queen and the Lieges, [as subsquent history proved] and he should have been impeached, not allowed a comfortable retirement at public expense!

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    1. Where, oh, where, could we find a worthy Successor to Margaret Thatcher, the last Prime Minster who really cared about the whole of the British Population, not about little pressure-groups within it.?
      Even when forcing-through measures unpopular with her political opponents, she always seems to have acted on the basis of "the greatest good for the greatest number" - and that's the highest motivation we can expect from any British Prime Minister. None of the recent political leaders qualify.

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    2. The reverse is true. By announcing that HMS Endeavour would be scrapped the Argentinians were emboldened to invade. Callaghan, former naval man,would not have made this grave misjudgment.

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    3. I agree Paul, Defence spending fell further in real terms under Mrs Thatcher than any post WWI prime minister, the same applied to health and industrial investment. The Defence cuts at the periphery produced effects that were unexpected including the invasion of the Falklands.
      Paul

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