1982 Glasgow Hillhead
The second significant by-election was the 1982 Hillhead contest whilst I was living in Hyndland, Glasgow. The sitting Tory MP at that point, the last surviving Glasgow Tory MP Tam Galbraith had died (sounds Irish I know). Like Douglas-Home he too was a genuine toff, being a landowner, Royal Company of Archers member and father of Thomas Galloway Dunlop du Roy de Blicquy Galbraith, 2nd Baron Strathclyde or Lord ‘Fatty’ Strathclyde a current member of Cameroons shadow cabinet.
Hillhead was in the west end of Glasgow and at that time boasted the highest percentage of university graduates of any UK constituency.
This was the period of the rise of the SDP (Social Democratic Party). There was speculation about the realignment of British politics and potential collapse of the Labour party. Roy Jenkins was one of the leaders of the SDP who had been Labour Home secretary and Chancellor in Wilson’s 1964-70 government and had been later president of European Community. The leading SDP people had left the Labour party in disgust at its leftward drift. The Liberals had at this time a loose alliance with the SDP and stood down in favour of Jenkins candidature for the Hillhead contest.
Jenkins was a grand figure much mocked for his speech defect; he pronounced his name as ‘Woy Jenkins’. He also had an image as a bon-viveur; he liked good claret apparently. There was much excitement that if this ‘big beast’ got elected to parliament this would increase the momentum of the SDP and the likelihood of major changes to the UK’s two party system.
The Tories chose a young Glasgow lawyer Gerry Malone who was controversially a Roman Catholic. The Labour candidate was David Wiseman and SNP candidate was vet George Leslie, a veteran of many by-election campaigns. The extreme anti-catholic Pastor Jack Glass stood against the forthcoming papal visit and an SDP spoiler who had changed his name by deed-poll to Roy Jenkins also stood. He withstood a legal challenge from the real SDP.
This was again a campaign with much ballyhoo, masses of leaflets and national media interest. I remember one packed public meeting at Hyndland Secondary School where the entire ‘Gang of four’ spoke. At this point the SDP were led by the ‘Gang of Four’, all former senior Labour people. There was Jenkins, David Owen, Shirley Williams and William Rodgers. In fact Rodgers who was least well known was the best speaker that night in my opinion. The SDP had been formed the previous year and the gang of four soubriquet was a humorous reference to the Chinese cultural revolution of the 60s led by a ‘gang of four’ which included Mao’s wife.
The SDP was essentially a right of centre, pro-nuclear weapons, pro EEC Labour party for people who could not stomach the leftward drift of Labour under Michael Foot. In essence, New Labour before Brown and Blair? Eventually they fully merged with the Liberals to form the Liberal-Democrats. Plenty of scope for a meaty Ph.D thesis on this fascinating topic for a latter day Gordon Brown!
So Jenkins won what was a genuinely exciting and close contest.
There was a certain amount of speculation afterwards that Malone’s religion lost it for the Tories. Although I would have thought Galloway who eventually beat Jenkins must have suffered from the same disadvantage?
Malone moved north in search of a seat and had a spell as an Aberdeen MP before losing there and moved south where he lost another safe Conservative seat in Winchester. Talk about being serially unlucky or incompetent! Jenkins held the seat until 1987 General Election when it was won for Labour by ‘Gorgeous’ George Galloway. However, I think boundary changes had made the seat more Labour friendly. Jenkins took a peerage and became an academic where he doubtless quaffed much claret.
My verdict was that both by-elections were great fun but neither changed anything much. Alec Douglas-Home was the tail end of 13 years of Tory rule, in many ways the end of the old order. Macmillan’s government was stuffed full of his old school friends and relatives. Quite unlike the modern Tory party.
The much talked about political realignment in 1982 never happened. The SDP merged with the Liberals and gradually subsided into being another flavour of Liberal Party. Labour recovered under Neil Kinnock and particularly John Smith and swung rightwards. Then Tony met Gordon and together with Alastair and ‘Bobby’ New-Labour was born. The rest they say is history.
By-elections of the century come along every decade or so!
Acknowledgement to Alan Bold’s biography of MacDiarmid.