Neviim Tovim, blogs by Gillian Gould Lazarus

When Heath Won the Election

Posted on: October 17, 2020

As an undergraduate, I resided in a large hall of residence where, in my final year, I met my first husband, not Mr Gould zichrono livracha nor Mr Lazarus, but the father of my first two children.

There were three communal television rooms for the entertainment of the students residing in three adjacent blocks. Watching television must have been a bit of an event because I remember what I watched and how it felt. For example, on the night when I believed I’d mastered truth tables in symbolic logic (I probably hadn’t) I  went light-hearted to the TV room where The Third Man was showing. I had seen it before but never with such appreciation and exquisite enjoyment. When I see it now – and it holds up marvelously well – I think of truth tables.

Another film, and why this 1936 classic was being watched by students in 1970 is a mystery, was San Francisco with Jeanette MacDonald and Clark Gable. There was some laughter at the cheesier moments but the earthquake montage, when it came, was met with a stunned silence. In the nineteen thirties, special effects were special indeed.

As Sartre was then my favourite living philosopher, I watched with great interest a BBC serialization of his trilogy The Roads to Freedom, with Michael Bryant, Georgia Brown and Daniel Massey – BAFTA nominated, but it seems to have vanished, leaving behind only a footprint on IMDb.

Most memorable, in terms of viewing, was the night of the 1970 General Election, 18 June. I would have been home with my parents in London where, for the first time, I had the right to vote, but I had become ill after the exams and, while the lurgy persisted, was holed up in my room in the hall of residence. By 18th June, I was well enough to make my way to one of the television rooms. I imagine that all three were tuned to the election results.

I was a Labour supporter. My parents and sister were Labour supporters. So were most of my friends, even the revolutionaries from the Socialist Society. So also were my grandparents, uncles and aunts although there was one cousin who said he voted Conservative. That got talked about in the family, in lowered voices.

It was just two years after the Evenements de Mai, the groundswell of student and trade union activism which flourished in France in May 1968 and spread across Europe and the USA. It made stars of student leaders Danny Cohn-Bendit in France and Rudi Dutschke in Germany. Here we had Tariq Ali, notching up more television appearances than could be claimed in 2019 by Ash Sarkar and Owen Jones combined.

The most average and conventional of the students at my university, those who were still comparing A level grades, suddenly grew their hair, called each other ‘Man’, became revolutionary socialists and, in many cases, ‘dropped acid’.

 For the record, I never did LSD – too fearful of hallucinations. ‘For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come?’

Well, Labour was defending a majority of over a hundred, the like of which we don’t see these days, and their poll lead was around 12% so the odds looked favourable on Harold Wilson being returned to Downing Street.

As you will know, the Conservatives won the General Election of 1970 and Edward Heath became Prime Minister.

The TV room gradually emptied, leaving just a disconsolate few, myself among them, to see in a Tory dawn.

In 1968, France at least had seemed to be on the cusp of revolution. By 1970, De Gaulle had retired and Georges Pompidou was the President. In America, the Democrat Lyndon Johnson was out and the Republican Richard Nixon was in.

What happens when the Left gets disappointed? Does the conservative Right consume the middle ground?

During my teenage years in the SWP, I heard Tony Cliff blame the failure of the German revolution in 1919 on the Social Democratic Party of Germany which, insisting on a parliamentary system of government, then put down the Spartacist movement. The Spartacist leaders Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Liebknecht were killed by the paramilitary Freikorps. Weimar followed and we know what beast burst forth in its wake.

The post 1968 narrative of the left was that, as in 1919, it had been betrayed by the centre, a motif overused at the present time by the disappointed ‘Many’ following the most recent UK General Election of December 2019.

Surrounded on the streets by like-minded people, calling in their thousands for justice, peace and plenty, with banners and placards carrying variations of the same message, some more inventive than others, and the chants of so many voices, how can we account for the conservative tendencies of ballot box voters? Is it a desire for the quiet enjoyment of the life adumbrated in the final speech of Trainspotting or a fear that those street activists who may have been us in a previous year or decade will gain power and be the most conservative of all?

In 2019, for the second time in my life, I didn’t want a Labour victory (the first time was 2017) because the Left seemed to have taken on a brutal and intolerant triumphalism. It looked possible that we were at last on the cusp of a societal change which would harm me and many of those close to me. I realize that this is denied most emphatically by the disappointed hard left.

Where do the hard left go when they are disappointed? Presumably to the same place as the electorally disappointed far right: the fringes, the shadows and the room above a pub, to plan the next upheaval, the next threshold and how to cross it.

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