Forty years ago this month, a country that had lived through two General Elections in the space of a year went to the polls yet again; in June 1975, however, voters were participating in Britain’s first nationwide referendum, one that would determine whether or not the UK remained a member of the Common Market, an institution it had only joined in 1972. Regardless of the outcome (which is a debate that will run and run and run), archive footage of the campaign highlights the passions on both sides to an electrifying degree.
At a public meeting of the No Campaign, far-right opponents of EEC membership (some belonging to the National Front) infiltrate the hall and cause the kind of chaos utterly alien to a political rally in the twenty-first century, invading the platform and chanting in the manner of a football crowd so the speakers cannot be heard. Similar chaos breaks out at a meeting of the Yes Campaign as a bag of flour is hurled at the stage containing the speakers and Roy Jenkins ends up looking like a guest at an Elton John birthday party who sneezed at an inopportune moment. Sweaty and clearly inebriated men shout abuse at Jenkins and those that don’t express their opposition with words do so with two fingers; Jenkins’ countenance passes through fifty shades of red as he tries to articulate his anger and make it heard above the melee. These remarkably raucous gatherings look more like punk rock gigs than political meetings.
Another rally from the same campaign has Harold Wilson, still PM at the time, struggling to get through a speech with constant barracking and heckling from the floor. Irate anti-Market protestors picked up by the camera resemble the kind of wild-eyed fanatics one would normally associate with the politics of 70s Ulster than England; but there are no burly bouncers or porky security men forcibly removing Wilson’s hecklers; they are tolerated because the politicians had been educated at the school of hard-knocks, honing their skills on the market-square soapbox, not as a novel gimmick ala John Major, but for real, back in the pre-24 hour news media age. They can handle whatever the public throws at them, whether verbal insult or bag of flour.
Roy Jenkins is again focused on as he argues his point surrounded by fervent anti-Market protestors outside a venue – a member of the Cabinet actually engaging with the electorate and not being afraid to look them in the eyes. All of this footage shows how interaction between politician and public was once a contact sport. Flesh was pressed and minders kept their distance. How times have changed.
Don’t expect history to repeat itself if the Hokey Cokey plebiscite takes place in a couple of years. The campaign will be choreographed as though it were a West End musical and the kind of rough ‘n’ ready ordinary Joes who made their feelings clear in 1975 won’t be allowed within a mile of the venues. Today’s equivalent political rallies remind me of the difference between the ad-hoc and somewhat shambolic free festivals of the same era as the EEC Referendum and the corporate gang-bang that passes for Glastonbury in 2015. Politicians are now as distant and detached from their public as whichever megastar will be flown down to Somerset on a private jet this summer, going through the motions onstage before jetting off again with numerous noughts added to their bank balance.
There seem to be two clear reasons as to why this situation has arisen. The first, which has already been touched upon, is down to a modern political education. Why should an MP need to sully his hands with a few hundred members of an unpredictable general public in a grubby hall when he can address millions via the media? And, come the conference season or Election time, any public speaking is done before cherry-picked party activists who would greet a tin of spaghetti as though it were Nelson Mandela as long as it was wearing the correct coloured rosette. Not that this is made evident to viewers at home, who assume they’re seeing the MP in question exuding popularity. A generation of MPs didn’t gain experience of how to communicate with ‘ordinary people’ because their rise through the Public School/Uni/Spad ranks didn’t include them. This then leads on to the second reason.
Witness how ineptly Tony Blair dealt with Sharron Storer, wife of a cancer victim for whom there was no bed at the Birmingham hospital she confronted the PM on the doorstep of during the 2001 General Election campaign – or, more infamously, Gordon Brown’s ‘Bigot-gate’ encounter with Gillian Duffy nine years later. These two incidents, particularly the latter, have served to further increase the party machine’s fears of letting their MPs anywhere near people who won’t read from the script. The impression given is that politicians are terrified of meeting the electorate in person. In turn, the public come to the conclusion that their elected representatives are too remote to relate to them anymore. I never saw hide nor hair of any of the candidates standing at my constituency at the last Election out and about in the weeks leading up to polling day – and I didn’t expect to either.
Okay, so a climate change protestor once provoked a spontaneous round of applause from the nation when she emptied a bucket of green custard on Peter Mandelson; but she didn’t point a revolver at him. The only Prime Minister assassinated in this country was Spencer Perceval, shot dead in the lobby of the Commons two-hundred years ago. Is there really any need for today’s political class to surround themselves with an army of bodyguards whenever they set foot outside of their Victorian Gothic towers? When Ted Heath left his constituency count at the 1970 General Election and headed back to London, the journey between venue and vehicle necessitated a brief walk amongst a generally euphoric crowd. That didn’t stop some wag stubbing out a cigarette on the new Prime Minister’s fat neck. How did Heath react? He stuck a plaster on the blister and carried on. Contrast that with the heckling pensioner who was physically ejected from the Labour Party conference a few years back for having the nerve to voice his disagreement with a Jack Straw speech – a lone voice raised in a different political environment and out of time.
I have an appointment to see my local MP at his surgery in a couple of weeks, the first such time I’ve had cause to come into contact with my elected representative. It will be weird actually meeting him close-up, almost (albeit not quite) like meeting Madonna. That’s how separate from my life the men and women of Westminster feel to me, and – I should imagine – many of us out there. This situation simply has to change if politicians are ever to inspire confidence again. They are supposed be our servants, not our masters.