Monday, 24 February 2014
Forty years ago today, I attended a meeting in Walsall at which the Leader of the Opposition of the time, Harold Wilson, spoke. A week later he was Prime Minister, after an eventful general election and a weekend in which Ted Heath attempted to put together a coalition in order to remain in power.
I'd been introduced to politics four years previously. During the general election of 1970 my father had taken me to a number of political meetings. I met Roy Jenkins and George Brown - leading figures in the Labour Party at the time. (Jenkins signed my autograph book, Brown refused to - he was defeated at the election - coincidence????) My father was never active himself, but gave me the opportunity to explore politics. My interest continued during the years of the Heath Government - I followed closely the moves towards Britain's entry into the EEC (now the EU). As I was the first male in my family for at least three generations not to go straight from school down the mines - I took a keen interest in the Miner's Strike which led to the calling of the 1974 General Election. At that election my parents let me go to some of the local meetings - where I met Bruce George (who I was later to work with) and Geoff Edge (who became my local MP - and who encouraged my interest in politics (and Milton Keynes - where he had been an Open University lecturer and councillor)). These two young would-be MPs both gave me useful advice and I shall always be grateful to both of them.
On the Sunday before the election, there was the rally in Walsall Town Hall. Geoff & Bruce spoke - as did the other Walsall candidate - John Stonehouse. Harold Wilson was the main speaker. For me February 24th has always been seen as my political "birthday". I'd taken an interest before then, but afterwards, I became truly involved. Although too young to join the Labour Party, I helped give out leaflets (and in the October 1974 election helped cut up copies of the electoral register to paste onto cards for the "Get Out the Vote" activities on election day - I'm glad technology has moved on!)
For me 1974 was a momentous year. Sadly my Grandfather passed away on March 31st. We had been down in South Wales as his end neared. I'd seen him for the last time in the afternoon, & my mother stayed on at the hospital until he died a couple of hours later. She remained with my grandmother as my father drove my sister and I back home to Aldridge. I guess I'm one of the few people who can remember exactly where they were at the moment the local government map was massively redrawn. At midnight old counties disappeared - and new ones emerged, as did many councils. It was exactly midnight as we crossed the border from Wales into England (quite possibly we were the last people to leave the historic county of Monmouthshire - which at that moment became Gwent). I learned a lot about my grandfather's story in the subsequent weeks - which further radicalised me. He had been a coalminer - who suffered long periods of unemployment in the 1930s.
My interest in politics extended to US politics - and the year was dominated by the unfolding Watergate story. Then in August Nixon finally resigned (& I spent hours glued to the TV)!. In Britain we had a second general election - and I had my first time as a candidate!
During the election Ted Heath came to Aldridge for a question and answer session. I was offered a ticket by someone I had met during the February election when I had attended meetings of all the major parties. (I'm convinced that he thought that I might be persuaded out of my preference for Labour!). At the invite-only meeting Ted Heath was asked questions which were all along the lines of "tell us how wonderful you are, Mr Heath?". As a very nervous young lad of 14 I stuttered out a question about the EEC, which while hardly piercing, was not sycophantic. The next day I was told that my question got onto the late night regional news summary. The Labour Candidate in our school mock-election, immediately stood down and I was made the Labour candidate - making my first speech in the school hall. If I recall, I pushed the vote for Labour up from 10 (the result in February) to 113. The rest is - as they say - history. (if not a particularly glorious one!!!!).
November 21 saw the Birmingham bombings. We were less than 10 miles away. One of the girls in my class had a sister who had been in Birmingham that evening, but had moved onto another pub. It was a shocking time. That news overshadowed another piece of local news. One of the three Labour MPs for Walsall was missing, believed drowned off Miami Beach. John Stonehouse had been the most senior of the three Labour MPs elected for Walsall constituencies in 1974. He had been a former minister. I was genuinely saddened. I hadn't got to know him as I had Bruce George and Geoff Edge. He was more aloof, but I had briefly met him. The next shock was to come on Christmas Eve. In the newspapers was the report that he had turned up in Australia. The local police thought they might have discovered the infamous Lord Lucan - instead it was the missing MP.
So for me, 1974 has a lot of memories - was it really 40 years ago!!!