1945: Churchill’s “Gestapo” speech
It was not his finest hour.
In the summer of 1945, the wartime coalition broke up and the parties campaigned in the first General Election campaign in nearly ten years.
Most expected Winston Churchill, rightly hailed as the nation’s wartime saviour, to lead the Tories to victory. But if this had ever been going to happen, Churchill did himself and the party serious harm with a vicious attack on Labour in a radio broadcast:
But I will go farther. I declare to you, from the bottom of my heart, that no Socialist system can be established without a political police. …No Socialist Government conducting the entire life and industry of the country could afford to allow free, sharp, or violently-worded expressions of public discontent. They would have to fall back on some form of Gestapo…
The attack backfired. Voters were aghast that Churchill would level such a charge at gentle timid men such as Clement Attlee, who until recently had been working well alongside Churchill in the coalition government. The attack seemed to perfectly demonstrate the difference between Churchill the great war leader and Churchill the party politician and probably at least partly explains the scale of the Labour landslide which followed. And, no. Nothing anything like a “gestapo” was ever introduced under Labour.
1970: Benn attacks Enoch
In 1968, Enoch Powell provoked a huge controversy with his inflammatory “rivers of blood” speech. Tory leader Edward Heath immediately sacked Powell from the Opposition front bench. As Labour went into the 1970 election, senior Labour campaigners were instructed not to mention Powell who still commanded significant support amongst many white voters.
Unfortunately, Tony Benn broke ranks with an attack almost as inflammatory in its own way as Powell’s had been. Benn declared: “The flag of radicalism which has been hoisted in Wolverhampton (Powell’s seat) is beginning to look like the one that fluttered 25 years ago over (the concentration camps) Dachau and .Belsen“. Benn regretted saying it, almost immediately.
Powell, like Benn, was a Second World War veteran and there is some evidence Benn’s gaffe galvanised white support in Powellite areas. The Tories won a surprise victory in 1970. Benn’s remarks don’t entirely explain this but they certainly didn’t help Labour.
February 1974: Enoch backs Labour
By 1974, many white voters still wanted Enoch Powell to be Prime Minister. With Edward Heath’s Tories facing a knife-edge election, Powell’s speech declaring that Tories who oppose Common Market membership should vote Labour was hugely damaging.
The result? Labour won slightly more seats than the Tories (though fewer votes) and were soon able to lead a Hung Parliament. Powell’s intervention may have actually led to the difference between victory and defeat. That said, Labour held a referendum on Common Market membership. People overwhelmingly voted “yes” so Britain remained within.
1983: Thatcher gets a grilling
The 1983 election was by and large a very good one for Mrs Thatcher’s Tories aside from this one supremely awkward phone-in with teacher Diana Gould. This centered on the sinking of the General Belgrano, during the 1982 Falklands conflict.
Gould: Mrs Thatcher, why, when the Belgrano, the Argentinian battleship, was outside the exclusion zone and actually sailing away from the Falklands, why did you give the orders to sink it?
Thatcher: But it was not sailing away from the Falklands — It was in an area which was a danger to our ships, and to our people on them.
Lawley: Outside the exclusion zone, though.
Thatcher: It was in an area which we had warned, at the end of April, we had given warnings that all ships in those areas, if they represented a danger to our ships, were vulnerable. When it was sunk, that ship which we had found, was a danger to our ships. My duty was to look after our troops, our ships, our Navy, and my goodness me, I live with many, many anxious days and nights.
Gould: But Mrs Thatcher, you started your answer by saying it was not sailing away from the Falklands. It was on a bearing of 280 and it was already west of the Falklands, so I’m sorry, but I cannot see how you can say it was not sailing away from the Falklands.
Thatcher: When it was sunk ..
Gould: When it was sunk.
Thatcher: .. it was a danger to our ships.
Gould: No, but you have just said at the beginning of your answer that it was not sailing away from the Falklands, and I am asking you to correct that statement.
Thatcher: But it’s within an area outside the exclusion zone, which I think is what you are saying is sailing away ..
Gould: No, I am not, Mrs Thatcher.
Sue Lawley: I think we are not arguing about which way it was facing at the time.
Gould: Mrs Thatcher, I am saying that it was on a bearing 280, which is a bearing just North of West. It was already west of the Falklands, and therefore nobody with any imagination can put it sailing other than away from the Falklands.
Thatcher: Mrs – I’m sorry, I forgot your name.
Lawley: Mrs Gould.
Thatcher: Mrs Gould, when the orders were given to sink it, when it was sunk, it was in an area which was a danger to our ships. Now, you accept that, do you?
Gould: No, I don’t.
Thatcher: I am sorry, it was. You must accept ..
Gould: No, Mrs Thatcher.
Thatcher: .. that when we gave the order, when we changed the rules which enabled them to sink the Belgrano, the change of rules had been notified at the end of April. It was all published, that any ships that were are a danger to ours within a certain zone wider than the Falklands were likely to be sunk, and again, I do say to you, my duty, and I am very proud that we put it this way and adhered to it, was to protect the lives of the people in our ships, and the enormous numbers of troops that we had down there waiting for landings. I put that duty first. When the Belgrano was sunk, when the Belgrano was sunk, and I ask you to accept this, she was in a position which was a danger to our Navy.
Lawley: Let me ask you this, Mrs Gould. What motive are you seeking to attach to Mrs Thatcher and her government in this? Is it inefficiency, lack of communication, or is it a desire for action, a desire for war?
Gould: It is a desire for action, and a lack of communications because, on giving those orders to sink the Belgrano when it was actually sailing away from our fleet and away from the Falklands, was in effect sabotaging any possibility of any peace plan succeeding, and Mrs Thatcher had 14 hours in which to consider the Peruvian peace plan that was being put forward to her. In which those fourteen hours those orders could have been rescinded.
Thatcher: One day, all of the facts, in about 30 years time, will be published.
Gould: That is not good enough, Mrs Thatcher. We need ..
Thatcher: Would you please let me answer? I lived with the responsibility for a very long time. I answered the question giving the facts, not anyone’s opinions, but the facts. Those Peruvian peace proposals, which were only in outline, did not reach London until after the attack on the Belgrano—that is fact. I am sorry, that is fact, and I am going to finish—did not reach London until after the attack on the Belgrano. Moreover, we went on negotiating for another fortnight after that attack. I think it could only be in Britain that a Prime Minister was accused of sinking an enemy ship that was a danger to our Navy, when my main motive was to protect the boys in our Navy. That was my main motive, and I am very proud of it. One day all the facts will be revealed, and they will indicate as I have said.
Lawley: Mrs Gould, have you got a new point to make, otherwise I must move on?
Gould: Just one point. I understood that the Peruvian peace plans, on a Nationwide programme, were discussed on midnight, May 1st. If that outline did not reach London for another fourteen hours, ..
Lawley: Mrs Thatcher has said that it didn’t.
Gould: .. I think there must be something very seriously wrong with our communications, and we are living in a nuclear age when we are going to have minutes to make decisions, not hours.
Thatcher: I have indicated what the facts are, and would you accept that I am in a position to know exactly when they reached London? Exactly when the attack was made. I repeat, the job of the Prime Minister is to protect the lives of our boys, on our ships, and that’s what I did.
The Tories still won the election handsomely but Thatcher refused to do any live TV phone-ins or to appear on anything presented by Sue Lawley ever again.