Lewis Baston is author of Reggie: The Life of Reginald Maudling and several books about British general elections. He is a consultant on politics, elections and constituencies.
The centenary of Britain’s entry to the Great War has been solemnly commemorated. Last month, I wrote about the dangerous divisions in British and Irish politics on the eve of the war, and what might have been had we not plunged into the European conflict “‘the biggest error in modern history”, as Niall Ferguson argues).
Rather than dwell further on that tragedy, I thought that I might note a happier landmark. It is 25 years since the summer of 1989, when the world began to change for the better – as the first chunks fell off the Soviet iceberg, the winds of change gathered force in South Africa, and there were intimations of the coming revolution in technology and communications.
August 1989 was an intriguing, exciting moment. As a student at the time, I remember the sense of change and possibility in the air – although none of us then could have known quite how fast-moving and radical it would all become over the autumn and the next couple of years. By that month, however, it was clear that the old certainties were dissolving, and that we were reaching the end of the Cold War era. Arthur Schlesinger, historian and Kennedy aide, could see in May that:
“Communism today is a burnt-out case. Its internal contradictions turned out to be far more destructive than the internal contradictions of capitalism.”
Poland was only a communist state in the most vestigial sense at the start of August. Its economy was already 30 per cent privately run. Solidarity was legalised in April, and had won a landslide in partial elections in June. The first non-communist Prime Minister of Poland since 1947, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, took office on August 19, a date which arguably can be considered the turning point of the East European revolutions, both because of this and synchronous events on the border of Austria and Hungary.
The Iron Curtain was being dismantled by the increasingly liberal Hungarian regime, despite its nominal adherence to the communist bloc: the foreign ministers of Austria and Hungary formally cut the barbed wire fence on June 26. On August 19, Hungarian opposition parties, with official permission, helped organise a ‘Pan European Picnic’ on the rapidly-melting former Iron Curtain border. From the western side, the MEP Otto von Habsburg, the notional claimant to the throne of the long-dissolved Empire, came to celebrate the rebirth of Central Europe. Crucially, there were considerable numbers of East Germans on holiday in Hungary – the warm waters of Lake Balaton and the more relaxed regime in Hungary were a sought-after respite from their dour homeland. The opening of the Hungarian western border effectively short-circuited the controls at the Berlin Wall: East Germans flocked to the border and to the West German diplomatic missions in Budapest. Something had to give, particularly after the Hungarians started officially letting East German refugees through in September.
Within the Soviet Union – at a time when even the more advanced radical politicians, such as Boris Yeltsin, were talking very cautiously about allowing an opposition political party – there were strong stirrings from below, such as a huge strike among Siberian coal miners and the ‘human chain for freedom’ across the Baltic republics in commemoration of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939 that had consigned them to tyranny.
Like communism, apartheid was still in force in August 1989, but was rapidly crumbling. F.W. De Klerk took office as President on August 15, but residential segregation had already started to collapse in practice in the metropolitan areas. Local authorities in Cape Town and Johannesburg were dropping ‘petty apartheid’ restrictions in their public amenities even before the formal repeal of apartheid laws such as the Group Areas Act.
Also that summer, a British engineer at the CERN European research centre was working on a ‘vague but exciting’ proposal for computerised information management having received approval from his bosses earlier in March . In the autumn, Tim Berners-Lee managed the first http client-server data transfer, and Info.cern.ch became the world’s first website in 1991.
Not all the pointers to the future that one could discern in summer 1989 were optimistic ones. Yugoslavia’s victory in the 1989 Eurovision Song Contest was the swansong of that country; the 600 year anniversary of the battle of Kosovo was an opportunity for Slobodan Milosevic, the new Serbian President, to fan the flames of nationalism and revoke the autonomy of Kosovo province. His ominous speech in June 1989 mentioned “armed conflict”.
The Soviet Union pulled out of Afghanistan, bled dry by western and Gulf-supported mujahedeen, leaving behind a situation that degenerated into chaos and extremism. In Iran, the religious authorities pronounced a death sentence on Salman Rushdie over The Satanic Verses. Just as the voters were choosing Solidarity in Poland, the pro-democracy protesters of Tiananmen Square were being brutally supressed, and China started out on its road of rapid economic growth and authoritarianism.
While 1989 is mainly remembered, rightly, as the springtime of democracy, it was emphatically not Fukuyama’s “end of history” – the alternative models of Islamic fundamentalism and sophisticated authoritarianism were making progress alongside free markets and democracy, even then. According to Hungary’s present Prime Minister, the era of liberal democracy is over and the Chinese and Russian models are appealing – despite what his predecessors accomplished for liberalism and democracy in 1988-89.
However, the British political diaries of the time give little sense of momentous events until the autumn. Reading Alan Clark and Woodrow Wyatt, the summer of 1989 was a wine-soaked reverie interspersed with mild plotting connected with the July 1989 reshuffle, which was widely regarded then (and now) as a botched job. Edwina Currie records in her diaries that
“The whole reshuffle has in fact been a mess, not just the top bit which is such a shambles. Too much swapping around, ending up with thirteen new Cabinet ministers. Still a lot of dead wood at middle and lower rank.”
Geoffrey Howe was removed as Foreign Secretary and given a heap of meaningless titles and visiting rights at Dorneywood, which did little to soothe the sting of humiliation. His replacement, John Major, had a steep learning curve in the Foreign Office, and had to face a Prime Minister who was becoming increasingly assertive on Europe, in particular. It was an interesting phase in Thatcher’s government, following, as it did, the two big speeches of 1988 – Bruges on Europe and the Royal Society on climate change. Mrs Thatcher also acquired Alan Walters that year as an economic adviser, much to the discomfort of Nigel Lawson, her Chancellor: she lost both men in October. The resulting reshuffle translated John Major to a more comfortable berth at the Treasury.
By the summer of 1989, the Thatcher government had started to look embattled and in decay; in June, she suffered the one national election loss of her leadership, when Labour won the European Parliament contest, and from that month until after her resignation in November 1990 Labour remained ahead in the polls, often by a large margin.
Thatcher’s personal ratings and government approval both declined significantly over the summer of 1989. Labour’s Policy Review had reported, and the party was about to formally get rid of its unilateral disarmament policy. For the first time, a majority Labour government led by Neil Kinnock started to seem a real possibility – even a probability. Warning economic signs were visible, as inflation rose, chased up by interest rates, and the overheating of the South East in particular became obvious, and the scene was set for the recession that began in 1990.
The counterfactual history of what might have happened had Mrs Thatcher clung to power in 1990 is an intriguing tale, but one for another occasion. But, by 1989, it is hard to think of how communism might have survived, or to imagine a counterfactual future in which it did not collapse. As Schlesinger observed, it was burnt-out. I remember, attending a seminar about the British Embassy in Moscow, and being surprised that diplomats who had been there as early as 1980 thought that the apparent ‘superpower’ would soon have to die of sclerosis. But it was remarkable how few people could see this in August 1989 – even if it had already started to happen.
Timothy Garton Ash The Uses of Adversity (Penguin, 1999) and The Magic Lantern (Vintage, 1993)
Stephen Kotkin Armageddon Averted (Oxford University Press, 2001)
Margaret Thatcher The Downing Street Years (HarperCollins, 1993) – as if any of you, gentle readers, hadn’t already…