Chapter 24 (1966-1974)

Britain in Decline

The so-called "swinging 60s" were pleasant for most people, bringing full employment and a visibly rising standard of living. The Welfare State, which had een create only twenty years earlier, was well established and for the first time in our history people could feel that they need never starve or suffer from the lack of medical attention. The trade unions achieved respect and status with the recognition that they were equal partners with management, and were courted accordingly by Governments. 

Sadly, in retrospect this was also a period of wasted opportunity. Management lost the urge to compete in quality and customer care, while unions misused their power with pointless strikes, internal rivalry and an obsession with perceived injustices in other parts of the world. Whole industries such as steel production, commercial airlines and motor-car manufacture were nationalised into monolithic entities and became prey to incompetent managements and grasping trade unions. The discovery of oil in the North Sea added to this “grasshopper” view - which was held by almost everybody - of a land where the harsher realities of life no longer applied.

The decline was slow and barely realised. Defence still accounted for a large proportion of this bounty and kept the ship-building, aerospace and military hardware industries busy, paid for by the enormous “invisible” earnings of Britain's insurance and financial institutions which had a world dominance matched only by the Americans. British inventiveness was renowned for its remarkable depth and variety in relation to our relatively small population. The famous “Mini” car and its larger brother the Morris and Austin “Maxi” introduced new features, such as front wheel drive and the engine mounted sideways, which were novel and innovative then, but are standard on most cars today. In the Defence field, Britain devised the angled-deck aircraft carrier, the steam catapult and the illuminated deck-landing system which together transformed naval air operations. Other ideas, however, such as the swing-wing aeroplane, the first hatch-back car, the hover-craft and the first jet airliner (the Comet) were not exploited or were allowed pass into foreign ownership by businessmen and politicians who disliked taking risks.

Polaris Submarines
In 1965 the Government had cancelled the contracts for a British missile programme and Prime Minister Harold MacMillan struck a deal with the USA to purchase their Polaris submarine-launched missile system, which would be installed in British-built nuclear-powered submarines with British nuclear warheads. This was a generous act on the Americans' part and signified a relationship with Britain which no other country shared. But it put us back for decades in missile development at a time when the French were pushing ahead. It also signalled the end of the British aircraft carrier, and with it the fixed-wing aircraft of the Fleet Air Arm, since we could not afford two such highly expensive types of ship, and the submarine as the vehicle for our nuclear deterrent was considered paramount. The British Polaris submarine programme was planned for five boats, which would have enabled two to be on patrol continuously but a Labour Government, in response to its pacifist and anti-nuclear lobby, later cancelled one of them. For reasons too complex to explain here, this meant that only one boat could be assured of constant readiness, leaving us with the worst of both worlds.

The great aircraft carriers remained in commission for some years but were eventually scrapped and Naval Aviation was limited to helicopter operations from smaller ships. Before they vanished I visited the Light Fleet Carrier HMS Centaur and was overwhelmed by the deafening noise and incredible organisation on the flight deck as a dozen Scimitars aeroplanes were catapulted off, “buzzed” the ship and landed again in rapid succession. In contrast, I later enjoyed a short trip from Rosyth to Portsmouth in HMS Blake, one of the Lion Class cruisers already mentioned, which had been converted to a helicopter carrier. Taking off in these curious machines from an incredibly small deck heaving wildly about in the swell seemed unbelievably dangerous and difficult. But this was not to be the end of the Fleet Air Arm or the British aircraft carrier, as shall be recounted.

July 1967 represented another milestone when the Government announced that Britain would no longer maintain an “East of Suez” defence policy which she had exercised for over two hundred years, because the changing world meant we now neither needed nor could afford to keep permanent fleets or military bases beyond the Mediterranean

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That same year, at the age of 16, Carolyn displayed that quiet determination and independence of mind which lies behind her placid, cheerful nature by announcing that she wished to spend her summer vacation at the Salmen Hotel in Ringelbach, in Germany. She wrote to Herr Meier asking for a job as a waitress but was offered instead the task of tending his twin children, then two years old, while Frau Meier produced another baby. With much apprehension we saw her off by train from Liverpool Street to catch the ferry to The Hague and thence another train to Southern Germany. The trip was a great success and she formed a bond with those delightful people which has endured ever since. Both our families are close friends and we have since had many holidays with them. Freda finished her training course and began a series of attachments to different schools in and round Hillingdon, which she passed with flying colours, and obtained a permanent post at Glebe School in Ickenham. This was the start of a new life for her and one to which she was totally committed. 

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The Space Age
On the world stage a new era for mankind also began with the first landing on the moon by the Americans Armstrong and Aldrin on 21st July 1969. It was a truly stupendous technical feat, but even this was outweighed in our minds by the awesome realisation that Man had broken free of his planet for the first time since the dawn of life. Freda and I stayed up to watch the landing on television in our time about 2am then rushed out to look at the moon, still shining brightly in the sky yet forever changed in our perception. In a sudden return of youthful imagination I saw the event as the beginning of a new age of space exploration, like the historic ocean voyages of Magellan, Drake and Cook, leading to our unravelling the mysteries of the other planets of our solar system and, who knows, eventually colonising them. However, though there were more moon landings, to my disappointment both the US and Russian governments later abandoned their lunar exploration programmes and devoted their resources to unmanned scientific probes and what they considered to be militarily and commercially more useful expeditions nearer the earth’  surface.

For Britain, there was a boost to national pride and morale in the first flight of the supersonic airliner Concord, built jointly with France. Most people were proud of the technological brilliance of our engineers, but were bitterly disappointed at its failure for many months to obtain a certificate to land in the USA. There was a suspicion in Europe that the delay was engineered to give American manufacturers time to catch up. However, by the time approval was given, a decision by the world’s oil-producing nations to restrict output and force up the price crucially increased Concord’s operating cost; the Americans abandoned their own supersonic airliner, and Boeing developed instead the B747 Jumbo jet airliner which swiftly revolutionised long-distance air travel. Particularly upsetting was the action of a few British people who lobbied in the USA for Concord to be banned on grounds of its supposed excessive noise. Both British and French Concords are in fact still flying happily a quarter of a century later (1994).

Miners’ Strikes and Power Cuts
In June 1970 there was another General Election; Labour were ousted and the Conservatives returned with a majority of 30 under the leadership of Edward Heath. His extraordinarily wide range of talents included being an Olympic class yachtsman and an organist and conductor of near concert standard. His greatest ambition was to secure Britain’s entry into the European Common Market, and thanks to his efforts this was finally begun in 1973. Meantime, however, the country was plunged into a devastating miners’ strike over pay which led to frequent power cuts of a kind which even Hitler did not inflict on us. This was followed by a dock strike, also immensely damaging.

My term of office as Head of Training came to an end in 1970 and after a short spell back in Civil Establishments I was fortunate enough to be promoted to the rank of Principal and entered the top echelons of the Civil Service. I had now become a minor “mandarin” as the Press liked to call us. My appointment was to the Naval Pay Division, responsible not for the detail of issuing and accounting for sailors pay but for negotiating with the Treasury on the rules and levels of remuneration. A revolutionary change in the way the Armed Forces were paid was about to take place and my job was to steer the Naval part of it through, in co-operation with a Naval Captain and his staff. Historically, members of the Armed Forces had been fed, clothed and housed by the State free of charge as part of their conditions of service. Their pay was correspondingly low, enhanced only by a marriage allowance for those who had families. Now, however, it had been decided to treat them like civilians by giving them an enlarged, inclusive “Military Salary” from which they would have to pay for everything previously received in kind.

Forces Pay Review
It was a move which the Forces themselves had long desired since it would enable them for the first time to compare their pay with that which civilians received - and an essential feature of the new system was to set up Job Evaluation teams to do just that. Leading Industrial management consultants were engaged to devise programmes for collecting and analysing details which would, for example, allow the jobs of a Sergeant in the Infantry, a Corporal in the RAF Signals or an Able Seaman to be compared with those of bank, railway, catering, construction or any other employees. The system was complex but surprisingly accurate; I wrote the thesis for my Diploma in Management Studies on the Theory and Application of Job Evaluation for the Armed Forces but will not bore the reader with details!

The results then had to be applied to the huge range of ranks and tasks in the Forces so as to produce a balanced pay structure across the board. Added to this were new scales of charges for food and accommodation, together with numerous special emoluments such as Flying Pay, Submarine Pay, Diving Pay, Hard-Lying Money, Separation Allowance and many more which must be negotiated with a parsimonious Treasury against a background of inter-Service competition for the available funds. It was all complete Greek to me but I was expected to lead my team from the first day and I have to confess that I was reduced to a state of despair for some weeks, not helped by a bout of influenza which laid me low for several days. However, I learnt fast and after a few months was able to hold my own in presenting close arguments, writing papers and taking decisions which would have far-reaching effects for the Navy.

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Carolyn now left school, having obtained a goodly number of certificates at Ordinary and Advanced level, and was accepted for an Honours Degree in Classics at Leicester University, leaving Freda and myself alone for the first time since our few weeks in the furnished room in 1945. I now sold the Hillman and bought a nearly-new Ford Cortina Estate which was even easier and friskier to drive. It gave me great joy until one day Brian was involved in a "shunt" on the M1 after taking Carolyn back to Leicester. The car was a write-off and, because he was three weeks from his 25th birthday, was not covered by my comprehensive insurance; so I got very little money. But the relief that he was unharmed in what could have been a most unpleasant accident made the matter of financial loss irrelevant.

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Brian had kindly offered to drive Carolyn to Leicester because I was away from home. Part of my job was to fix the pay of locally-entered naval personnel and at the time of the mishap I was with a tri-Service team on my way to Malta where all three Services had uniformed contingents. The Empire was shrinking fast but it had been British policy to set up local militias under British officers in most Colonies and there were still a surprising number of these throughout the world, most of them attached to the Army though the Navy also had a few. The history of the Sudanese, Iraqi, Adeni, Maltese, West African, Kenyan and many other Corps, each with its own uniform, rules and traditions, makes fascinating reading to anyone not obsessed with the evils of “Colonialism”. Strangest of all perhaps were the Ghurkas, still part of the British Army today. These fearless little men come from the tiny country of Nepal, nestling high in the Himalayas and never actually part of the Empire; they are in effect mercenaries but they have served us with a fierce and unshakeable loyalty for well over a century in all our wars and hold a special place in British hearts.


Britannia Aircraft

But I digress. We flew to Malta in a Britannia aircraft of RAF Transport Command from its Oxfordshire base at Brize Norton and were royally received in the island, being greeted by television cameras and Government officials. It was a nostalgic occasion for me to be in Malta again after a quarter of a century and in such different circumstances. The people were very friendly and although we worked late into the night on our mission were able to see some of the towns and historic buildings. The Naval Base and Dockyard were now mere shadows of their wartime frenzy but the Operations and Signals offices hewn into rock at Lascaris were fairly busy, while the Headquarters at HMS St Angelo in the Crusader fort of the same name on the opposite side of Grand Harbour from Valetta was still active and accommodated the Malta Port Division of local sailors. This ancient edifice has commanded Grand Harbour since the Middle Ages and is little changed, with its ramparts for pouring boiling oil on attackers, galley-slave dungeon and its berths for the galleys themselves.

fort st angelo

Fort St. Angelo, Malta

Two years later we returned on a similar mission to find a very different situation. A Labour Government under Dom Mintoff had been elected with a majority of one seat, but it proceeded to destroy the British connection. Unrest and riots were fomented among Dockyard workers, leading to the setting up of a civilian Company to run it, this being dependent on Naval work until the British got fed up. The Malta Port Division was disbanded to the sorrow of most of its loyal members. Our team, making a final pay assessment, were treated almost as spies. Armed watchers were stationed outside our hotel to report our movements and it amused us to keep them employed by going in and out repeatedly in ones and twos, much to their bewilderment.

Power Cuts
At home, the miners were on strike again, supported by rail workers, and skilfully led by their union leader, Arthur Scargill, who devised a system of “flying pickets” whos purpose was to persuade trade unionists at gas-works and power stations to come out in sympathy. Power cuts became so frequent that Industry went onto a three-day working week, though to everyone's surprise production declined only slightly. As office workers, we continued at our desks using candles when the lights went out and frantically doing all our copying when current was restored. The prevailing mood of the public seemed to be to resent the strikers' threat to democratic rule but Prime Minister Heath, unwisely as it turned out, decided to call a General Election in February 1974. The result was no clear majority for either the Labour or the Conservative Party; Heath resigned and Harold Wilson formed a minority Labour Government. The following year a Referendum of the British people was held to determine whether we should join the European Community. This grand plebiscite, unique in our history, resulted in a two-thirds majority in favour and Britain finally became part of modern Europe.

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Brian's life meantime had taken some strange turns. After some months' teaching at schools in the Midlands, he decided that he ought not to spend all his days in a classroom but should learn at first hand something of the working-class background from which most of his pupils came. To this end, he took a job as a lorry driver with a firm at Staines, not far from our home. He threw himself into this occupation with his usual enthusiasm and travelled the country acquiring knowledge and experience which very few of his colleagues possessed. He also acquired a wife, named Linda, and very shortly a son, whom they called Michael Anthony. Just as with his parents, this development demanded that proper accommodation be found and after a few months in unsatisfactory rented premises he discovered that about 70 miles north of London, beyond commuting range at that time, house prices suddenly dropped to tolerable levels. With our assistance he purchased an attractive new bungalow at Sawtry in Cambridgeshire. In due course another son, David, was born.

I imagine everyone can point to an insignificant event in their lives which in retrospect led, apparently quite fortuitously, to a total change of direction and plans. So it was with Brian. While he was still at school a friend of mine had offered me an Adana home-printing machine with a stock of fonts. Brian became fascinated with this and soon acquired a larger machine, with which he made pocket money by printing headed notepaper. In his usual fashion, he quickly built up a considerable knowledge and expertise in the art of printing and one day announced that he could earn more at this occupation than his then miserable salary as a teacher at Sawtry. He set up in business as Whyteleaf Press and in a year built up a profitable concern which occupied all his time and energy.

Sadly, circumstances conspired against him. A sudden severe recession hit Britain and much of the rest of the world, occasioned by an enormous increase in the price of oil. In the balmy 60s much of British Industry had converted to oil as its main source of energy, at the expense of our indigenous coal, this being one reason for the miners' unrest. Now, businesses went to the wall, the smallest first, then larger ones, as orders fell and customers defaulted on payment. Brian was forced to seek a living elsewhere.

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