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To vote or not to vote

September 13, 2019

It’s a beautiful spring morning in May 1979, but I am oblivious to the weather. My guts are in a knot. Today there is a general election in Britain, the first in which I am eligible to vote.

My life to date has been upwardly mobile. I may have begun as an urchin (okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration) in a terraced council house in E12, but I am now a young journalist living in a lovely flat situated on the NW3 (that’s Hampstead, dearie, in case you don’t know) side of Finchley Road.

My roots are strong. Not once in my life has it ever occurred to me that when I got into a voting booth in London I would do anything except place an X beside the Labour candidate’s name.

This, however, is the spring of 1979 and, like everyone else in the country, I have just lived through what became known as the winter of discontent. Unemployment had reached nearly 6% the previous October. Over the following months there had been strike after strike after strike. Days when you couldn’t get a pint of milk for love nor money because the milkmen were on strike, a loaf of bread because the bakers were on strike. You couldn’t get to work, because the tube drivers were on strike. You couldn’t bury your granny because the gravediggers were on strike. Not that I had a granny to bury, but it’s the principle of the thing, isn’t it?

Sitting in Number 10, presiding over this chaos has been our Labour Prime Minister, James Callaghan. How can I possibly, in good conscience, put an X on my ballot for more of the same?

Making hay of all this was the Conservative Party and its dreadful leader, Margaret Thatcher. These billboards appeared everywhere in the run up to the election.

This poster, dreamt up by the advertising firm Saatchi & Saatchi, has become iconic. (In searching for a copy of it, I’ve just come across this interesting titbit: none of the what looks to be hundreds of people in this fictitious dole queue are actually unemployed. They are the same 20 young Conservative volunteers photographed over and over again.)

However bad the winter had been, however ineffectual the Callaghan government had been, I knew in my gut that putting the milk snatcher in Number 10 was not going to make life better for the unemployed. In case you’re wondering, as education minister during the Heath Conservative government, Thatcher had withdrawn funding for the free milk in schools programme, ergo the nickname that haunted her all her life. (And, of course, I was right about Thatcher. Under her regime unemployment rose from roughly one million people in 1979 to three million in 1983. She turned out to be even worse than I thought she would be.)

I couldn’t vote Labour and I certainly could not vote Conservative. My grandparents would be spinning in their graves. I seriously considered not voting at all. But no. universal suffrage had been won after a long fought war in my grandparents time. Not voting would be almost as bad as voting Conservative.

I left the flat and walked up the road to the polling station in the primary school. I took my ballot and went into the booth. I voted for the Liberal candidate. He came third. (Bloody hell. Googling around just now to find the name of Hampstead’s then Conservative MP who won re-election in 1979 – Geoffrey Finsberg – I stumble across the fact that the Labour candidate for whom I did not vote was Ken Livingstone.)

This was the first – and only – time in my life that I voted Liberal. It may have been a throwaway vote, but it was a vote.

On a completely different note, memory is a funny thing, isn’t it?

A couple of years ago, the 1979 general election came up in a conversation here with a Canadian mate and an ex-pat Brit mate, the latter of whom well remembered the election. I joked that I’d ended up casting my vote for the dog killer and my British chum laughed. We then explained to our bemused Canadian friend that the Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe had gone on trial for paying someone to kill his gay lover’s Great Dane and, of course, conspiring to murder said lover. Thorpe was, some of you may remember, acquitted following what may have been the most outrageous ever instruction to the jury by any judge. (He basically told the jury that it was absolutely impossible to believe that such a fine, upstanding gentleman as Mr Thorpe could ever be involved in anything so sordid.)

I was reminded last year whilst watching A Very British Scandal (Hugh Grant excellent as Jeremy Thorpe and Ben Winshaw as excellent as he is in everything) that Thorpe’s trial may have been going on at the time of the general election, but he had actually been ousted by then as Liberal leader, replaced by David Steele.

So I didn’t vote for a dog killer. That’s something.

And now, because I just stumbled across it, I provide for your entertainment Peter Cook’s piss take of Judge Joseph Cantley’s summation to the jury. Trust me when I say it isn’t much of an exaggeration.

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