Having attended quite a few guest speeches by this point, I expected tonight’s to fit into the familiar mould. I was a little thrown-off, as were the those in charge, to find that the fixed tiers of seats in the lecture hall were folded away at the back wall and instead we were circled around a splatter of smaller tables. In retrospect it felt a misstep to wear a business suit to the occasion.
This was the Annual Norton Lecture, delivered by Professor Terrence Casey of the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. Trying very hard to minimise his references to Trump or Brexit, he spoke to us about the turbulent politics of the 1970s and the rise of Margaret Thatcher.
As someone who has watched a lot of old documentaries about British politics, as well as listened to a lot of Professor Vernon Bogdanor’s lectures for Gresham College, I was on familiar ground for much of the talk. Casey took us through the story of how the post-war economic consensus broke down through the tenure’s of Heath, Wilson and Callaghan, from the imposition of far-reaching price controls in 1972 to the Winter of Discontent in 1979. There was also the concurrent parliamentary story of the “Who Governs?” election, followed by Wilson’s achievement of a very slim majority, then the pacts with the Liberals when that got worn away.
The more original parts of the lecture (from my perspective at least) were on the backstage parts of the story – how policies were formulated and parties managed. Casey was keen to stress that the Margaret Thatcher of 1970, newly appointed as Secretary of State for Education & Science, was a far cry from the character that exists in public memory now. At that point, the notion of her ever becoming prime minister, let alone the godmother of a new political age, would have been considered farcical. Her emergence as a right-wing firebrand, he said, was more by a series of random chances (such as Callaghan’s decision against an election in 1978, or the backbench resentment of Heath in 1975) than by any divine ordination.
Casey rejected the idea that “Neoliberalism” – a term rarely spoken kindly but rather spat out in contempt by those who use it at all – was thrust upon the unwilling masses in an unethical manner by a nefarious elite. Instead he described it as the natural result of the masses falling out of love with the Keynesian regime that had prevailed before and looking for an alternative solution which the Thatcherite faction – with particular mention of Sir Keith Joseph – provided them. He also noted that whereas the throwing out of what is sometimes called Butskellism occurred quite rapidly after the economic breakdown and industrial unrest of the 1970s, the backlash against Blatcherism ensuing from the 2008 credit crunch took a much longer time to result in any serious change of course from the governments of the nations affected.
In the lengthy question & answer session which followed, I asked Professor Casey the same question which I had put to Paul Danahar ten months ago – When does he last remember politics being normal? He replied that there could never be a clear single cause or moment identified, but that the tide would have been turned by the culmination of many small factors. He also reassured us that although he had singled out the nineteen-seventies and the new tens for the purpose of his speech tonight he was aware of many other much rougher times in public discourse, all of which society survived mostly intact.