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1963: That Was the Year That Was
By Andrew Cook
The History PressCopyright © 2013 Andrew Cook
All rights reserved.
JANUARY – Ice Box Britain
Newspaper headlines have a habit of describing bad weather as the worst in the century, or since records began in 1659. But the winter of 1962/63 really was unforgettably cold. Within living memory, only the winter of 1947 has rivalled it for sheer misery. In 1963, just eighteen years after the war, most people still did not have central heating or cars, and shortages of fuel and power made life grim. The number of people dying of the usual winter illnesses rose dramatically in the first three months of the year.
It started unremarkably enough, with light snow on 20 November. The first few days of December saw temperatures fall below freezing, despite the sunshine, which was followed by thick, often freezing, fog. (Implementation of the 1956 Clean Air Act was gradual; in some towns coal still caused major pollution and reduced air quality.)
On the afternoon of Boxing Day, snow drifted down in huge flakes and began to settle. By early evening, frozen points at Crewe were delaying trains from the north, creating a tailback of trains at signals further up the line; the Glasgow–London train was among them. When signals forced it to wait in the dark at a point some way past Winslow, the driver found that the phone didn't work at the Coppenhall signal-box ahead and chose to ignore a red light. He drove his train slowly past it to the next signal-box. What he could not see, in darkness through swirling snow, was a stationary train ahead; the 16.45 from Liverpool–Birmingham. He collided with the back of it at about 20mph; its rear coaches were telescoped, killing eighteen and injuring thirty-four.
More thick snow fell every day until 29 December, when blizzards began. Local councils up and down the country were kept busy salting the roads; snowdrifts were 3ft deep and in most places travel by car was impossible. People postponed journeys by road, but the weather didn't improve; trains were delayed all over the country. Pipes were frozen and local authorities had to open stand-pipes in the roads. Householders – usually the women – trudged through the snow to these and filled buckets several times a day. Without a stand-pipe they could not wash, flush lavatories or cook, and disposable nappies for babies were too expensive for most mothers then, even if they had access to them.
Freezing temperatures did not abate. Snow blanketed the whole of Britain until the end of January, and lay thick until March in some areas. Snow was reported to be 6in deep in Manchester city centre, 9in deep in Leeds and about 18in in Birmingham. By the end of January, the sea had frozen for 1 mile out from shore at Herne Bay in Kent. From Windsor upstream, the Thames was frozen from bank to bank. To make matters worse, members of the militant Electrical Trades Union (ETU) began to 'work to rule' in power stations. Power cuts closed cinemas and theatres, and prevented floodlit football fixtures, not that many matches could have been played; most were called off because of frozen pitches. Street lighting flickered and traffic lights stopped working. The roads were dangerous already, with people falling over and cars skidding or getting stuck. A country accustomed to using public transport found it too cold to wait for a bus. Trains were constantly delayed by frozen points.
To keep roads open at all, councils had frozen snow shovelled onto lorries and piled up on open land. Salting the roads became ineffective as it required a certain amount of traffic to mix it in and melt the ice and snow; this traffic failed to arrive, especially at night and at weekends when temperatures were very low.
Icy weather soon began to affect the economy; food prices rose. The average wage was £16 per week, a working person's often closer to £12. Tomatoes and Cox's apples went up to sixpence a pound; eggs were a shocking four and six (about 24p) a dozen; and potatoes sevenpence per pound.
Between 21 and 25 January, freezing fog returned, which made driving particularly dangerous. Diesel fuel froze, studding the highways with broken down vehicles. The cold spell was in its fifth week when the ETU's work to rule ended, but it took some time for normal service to resume and power cuts persisted in the meantime.
When a thaw did set in, water mains burst; according to some reports, 200,000 gallons of water a day were pouring to waste in towns and cities as a result of leaks and broken mains. And with the end of January, the cold weather returned. Throughout the first week of February there was heavy snow and storms, with gale-force winds reaching Force 8 on the Beaufort scale. A thirty-six-hour blizzard caused heavy drifts that were 20ft deep in some areas. Midwives, district nurses, emergency doctors and NHS staff – like everyone else – struggled to work through it all.
Where cars could still drive, they were being affected by road salt, rust and corrosion. The press reported that old paraffin heaters were being brought out and used, causing fires. People knocked them over or tried to refill them without turning them off first, causing a horrible whoosh of flame and setting themselves and their home alight; fire brigades were kept busy.
The 1 March, said the papers excitedly, was 'the warmest day since November', but temperatures descended below freezing again at night. However, the spring thaw really had begun now, and on 5 March no frost was recorded in the morning and the last traces of the Boxing Day snow had vanished. On 8 March it rained; on 13 March, crocuses bloomed; and on 6 April, there were daffodils. The daffodils appeared six weeks later than usual.
Sports fixtures resumed. Football was way behind schedule, with some FA Cup matches having been postponed as many as ten times, and some league sides had every fixture cancelled between 8 December and 16 February. When spring came, they played three times a week to catch up. Rugby (Union and League) was much the same. As for horse racing, which had seen not a single race between 23 December and 7 March, it was a very bad year for bookies.
Britain breathed a sigh of relief, for it had been a dreadful winter.
Death of Hugh Gaitskell
The Leader of the Labour Party, Hugh Gaitskell, died on the evening of 18 January 1963 at the age of 56 after a short illness. As Leader of the Opposition for the past seven years, he was, by common consent, almost on the threshold of 10 Downing Street. By the end of 1962, not only his own party, but a good many Conservatives, expected him to be prime minister before the next autumn.
He had had an interesting background: Winchester and Oxford, a certain radicalisation as a result of the General Strike, and a career as an academic economist, which included the momentous years of 1933 and '34 in Vienna. He spent the war years working with Hugh Dalton at the Ministry of Economic Warfare, which ran the Special Operations Executive (SOE) whose personnel assisted in sabotaging the Axis powers overseas.
Gaitskell was elected Labour MP for Leeds South at the 1945 General Election, which Labour won by a landslide. Promotion came quickly and within two years he was appointed to the Cabinet as Minister of Fuel and Power. When Sir Stafford Cripps fell ill and had to resign as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gaitskell was chosen to take his place. This was seen at the time as the result of Hugh Dalton's influence, and Gaitskell turned out to be a controversial chancellor; the National Health Service (NHS), the jewel in Labour's crown since its inception in 1948, suddenly imposed charges for prescription spectacles and false teeth. (One reason for the charges was that Britain, which was still broke, with food rationing and a huge demand for housing, was required to contribute to the funding of the Korean War.) Aneurin Bevan, Harold Wilson and John Freeman resigned over the prescription charges, which they felt violated the fundamental principle of the NHS, and from then on there was recurrent conflict between Left and Right in the party.
Labour was defeated in 1951, and again in 1955, and after that second defeat Clement Attlee resigned as Party Leader; Gaitskell beat Aneurin Bevan and Herbert Morrison to the post.
Gaitskell was forceful in opposition; in particular during the Suez Crisis in 1956. President Nasser of Egypt had suddenly nationalised the Suez Canal, a route of enormous importance to world trade. Israel invaded, and Britain and France issued an ultimatum to both countries; when Nasser failed to respond, they bombed Cairo. This was a terrible move, carried out without the support of the United Nations (UN). The Russians, who supported Nasser, were furious; the Americans were appalled; and the British and French were forced to retire with ignominy. It turned out that Britain and France had orchestrated the entire episode with the Israelis in the first place. Gaitskell was scathing in Parliament, and he had public support.
Nevertheless, Labour failed yet again to win in 1959. Notwithstanding the Festival of Britain, people still associated the Labour Party with the grey years of post-war impoverishment and the Conservatives exploited that with their slogan: 'Life's better with the Conservatives! Don't let Labour ruin it.'
Gaitskell did not prevaricate: he knew what he wanted. On every issue, you knew where you were with him and it was unlikely to be on the Left. The major exception to this rule was his stance on the Common Market. Macmillan was trying to get Britain in, but Gaitskell, like the Left of the Labour Party, opposed him because he said the country would lose its independence: it would be 'the end of a thousand years of British history'.
Bevan, Wilson and others on the Left proclaimed rigid commitment to nationalisation, as under Clause 4 of the Party's constitution:
... to secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.
Gaitskell was flexible on nationalisation, and he also refused to commit Labour to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament's aim of unilateral disarmament.
He was due to visit the Soviet Union in the New Year of 1963. He had had the flu in December, but was pronounced fit to travel; after all he had recovered and was younger than Attlee, Eden or Macmillan had been when they took office.
However, immediately after Christmas, he fell ill again, and the trip to meet Nikita Khrushchev had to be cancelled. On 4 January he was admitted to the Middlesex Hospital with what turned out, two days later, to be serious kidney trouble. On 17 January, an unsuccessful kidney transplant was performed; there were repeated attempts at dialysis, but his heart and lungs seemed too weak to stand the strain. At 9.10 p.m. on 18 January, his organs suffered a total failure and he died; his wife Dora was by his side.
Messages flooded in from the queen, Kennedy, Khrushchev, Lord Attlee and national leaders all over the world, many of whom had expected that, after the 1964 British election, Gaitskell would be prime minister. Then the conspiracy theory began.
Dr Somerville, from the Middlesex Hospital, thought there was something fishy going on. Three days later he contacted MI5; its Director General, Roger Hollis, was immediately interested. Anatoli Golytsin, a recent defector from Russia, had revealed that the KGB was planning a political assassination in Europe in order to replace the victim with a man of their choice. Hollis suggested that Arthur Martin, Head of the Russian Counter-espionage section, should find out what Dr Somerville had to say.
Dr Somerville told him that Gaitskell had died of lupus disseminata. This, he apparently said, was an extremely rare disease, almost unknown in temperate climates, and in the past year Gaitskell had not been anywhere where he could have caught it.
Martin consulted the Government's Chemical and Microbiological Laboratory at Porton Down in Sussex, where Dr Bill Ladell, who was very knowledgeable about chemical and biological warfare, said that nobody knew how lupus disseminata was transmitted. It might be a fungus, but that didn't help in knowing how it was contracted. Martin then asked the CIA to find out from Russian scientific papers whether the Soviet agencies might have considered using lupus surreptitiously to bring about death. They sent MI5 an English translation of a 1958 Russian scientific journal which described the use of a chemical that the Russians had discovered that could induce lupus in experimental rats; however, the quantities required to produce lupus were considerable and had to be given repeatedly. Dr Ladell, having read a copy of the CIA's response, suggested that if the Russians had continued their lupus research in the five years since they produced the paper, they may well have found a more effective form of the chemical, requiring much smaller doses.
The story seems unlikely. Gaitskell was surely less of a threat to socialism than the Tories; why choose to assassinate him unless they were sure they had their own man ready to take his place? But Harold Wilson, his successor, followed the usual path of radicals in office, demonstrating by compromise that politics is the art of the possible.
However he died, Gaitskell's reputation also remains subject to debate. Would 1960s Britain have fared any better under the leadership of such a man, fabled for his principles, as opposed to Wilson? Harold Wilson, by the early 1970s, was viewed by many as an unprincipled chameleon. A conviction politician some twenty years before conviction politics became the vogue, Gaitskell could well be seen as a politician ahead of his time. Had he lived, he might have won a larger majority in 1964 than Harold Wilson. Even with a smaller win, it seems likely that he would have pushed ahead with a tougher, more radical agenda than the more cautious Wilson. On economic policy, for example, he would doubtless have gone ahead and devalued the pound within months of the election (unlike Wilson, who did not grasp the nettle until late 1967). Gaitskell would also have pushed through legislation to curb unofficial 'wild-cat' strikes, if necessary risking a head-on conflict with the Trade Union Movement. Being a virulent anti-marketeer, he could well have vetoed any further moves by Britain to seek membership. In his day, though, the gift of Common Market membership was still very much in the hands of the French, who four days before his death made their views on the matter profoundly clear.
When France, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg and Holland formed the Common Market in 1958, Britain feared membership would have too severe an impact on its Commonwealth markets, which still counted for a large part of the nation's trade.
Instead, the Macmillan government opted to create a rival, looser free trade area with the Scandinavian countries, plus Portugal and Switzerland, which was collectively known as the European Free Trade Area or EFTA. Within five years, however, the economic remedies employed by Macmillan and his chancellor, Selwyn Lloyd, failed to have any real impact on Britain's growing inability to match the economic growth and rise in living standards being achieved by the six Common Market countries. Fearing he may have missed the European boat, Macmillan began a round of diplomacy, which culminated in an announcement in 1961 that Britain desired to seek membership to the Common Market.
Having previously been invited to join, and having (so far as the rest of Europe was concerned) arrogantly rejected the offer, Macmillan was now having to apply from a position of weakness. In particular, he encountered scepticism from France and, to a lesser extent, from West Germany. Both saw Britain as half-hearted in its commitment to the ideals of European unity and feared Britain's continuing close ties with the United States.
This European wariness became apparent in December 1962, when Macmillan held talks with French president Charles de Gaulle. Macmillan discovered that, far from mellowing, de Gaulle had become more intransigent. Britain, he thundered, had not yet thrown off its old bonds with the United States, and Macmillan had failed to convince him that he was prepared to be a good European rather than an apologist for the Americans. Why, then, Macmillan muttered as he listened to this, had the French allowed the talks to drag on for so many weary months if they were opposed to the British application all along?
On 14 January 1963, at an Elysée Palace press conference, de Gaulle humiliated Macmillan by announcing his reservations to a worldwide audience: 'England is insular,' he boomed to the assembled media, 'bound up by her trade, her markets, her food supplied by the most varied and often the most distant countries ... In short, the nature and structure and economic context of England differ profoundly from those of the other states of the Continent.' Should Britain be allowed to join the Common Market, he continued, 'in the end there would appear a colossal Atlantic community under American dependence and leadership which would soon swallow up the European Community.' He had, he concluded, decided to veto Britain's application.
Excerpted from 1963: That Was the Year That Was by Andrew Cook. Copyright © 2013 Andrew Cook. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
1 JANUARY – Ice Box Britain,
2 FEBRUARY – Please Please Me,
3 MARCH – End of the Line,
4 APRIL – Ban the Bomb,
5 MAY – It's All in the Game,
6 JUNE – Scandal,
7 JULY – The Unthinkable,
8 AUGUST – I Have a Dream,
9 SEPTEMBER – Thunderball,
10 OCTOBER – It's My Party,
11 NOVEMBER – Conspiracy of One,
12 DECEMBER – Capitol Asset,