Thursday, February 11, 2021

From Suez to the Falklands - Part 3

The controversy and media swirl that surrounded "Mad Mitch" and the withdrawal from Aden was in many ways deceptive, as it helped to obscure a far more important and consequential conflict further to the east; one that was being prosecuted by a character who was very different in temperament and style to Colin Mitchell. This was the secret war against Indonesia that was colloquially known as the Konfrontasi, after the strategy of brinkmanship implemented by the Indonesian leader President Sukarno to destabilise Malaysia, which itself was an amalagamation of former British colonies, and which Sukarno viewed as a British puppet state. Major-General Walter Walker had commanded the Brigade of Gurkhas in the long, grim campaign to eradicate the communist insurgency in Malaya, and his response to the Indonesian infiltrations into Malaysian territory from the beginning of 1963 was charaterised by both its unobtrusiveness and its restraint. Like Mitchell, Walker understood that the Western media were as much of an enemy as the people he was fighting, but whereas Mitchell had attempted to overcome this by sacrificially offering himself up as the charismatic focus of attention, Walker instead kept a low profile and shrouded his operations in a cloak of secrecy.

The most notable example of this was the two year long Operation Claret, in which Walker turned the tables and authorised the British Army to cross into Indonesia and break up enemy troop concentrations by ambush before they could penetrate into Malaysia. The anti-Western character of the mass media, although pervasive, had many forms. In some, albeit relatively rare instances, journalists and reporters were overt or covert Marxists whose deliberate agenda was to expose and therefore implicitly condemn what they saw as imperialist or colonialist depredations. Somewhat more commonly, journalists simply embodied or reflected the antinomianism and rejection of deference and duty that pervaded the wider popular culture, this being expressed in a general sympathy for what was popularly known as the Third World. However, the most prevalent case was that the very structure of the media tended to generate a passively condemnatory account of Western actions, even when journalists attempted to be sympathetic towards them. The sight of bristling, well-armed Western soldiers brushing through villages marked by abject poverty brought home to the nation's living rooms the uncomfortable reality of a harsh and brutal world that existed beyond the horizons of Western affluence.

Nonetheless, Walker's strategy would pay off, and by the middle of 1966 the Indonesians had agreed to end the confrontation at the negotiating table, this in itself being facilitated by the removal from power of Sukarno by the right-wing Suharto, after an extraordinarily bloody purge that had in part been facilitated by the British. From the domestic point of view, the most important lesson of the Konfrontasi was that it demonstrated, for all the apparent evidence of terminal decline, that there were still elements within the ruling class and the British state that were capable of acting effectively and decisively. Indeed, it supported the view held by more sceptical observers on the Left that the British Empire, rather than disappearing, had merely transmuted, its form having changed from one of territorial governance to one of networked influence; a "skeletal" empire for the communications age. This was, coincidentally, one in which the "soft power" of its delinquent popular culture might even prove to be useful.

However, by the time the last substantial British forces had withdrawn from Malaysia, this popular culture had effectively imploded. After the giddy optimism of 1967's Summer of Love, the counter culture had been subsumed in a deluge of violence and paranoia, most famously iterated in the twin horrors of Altamont and the murders conducted by the Manson family. The dream of a new world was further eroded by the deaths of such luminaries as Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison, and by the arrival of essentially cynical conservative governments on both sides of the Atlantic. Whereas the most daring and visionary music of the Sixties had been imbued with an almost spiritual sense of new possibilities, the emergent music of the new decade of the Seventies would be marked by three characteristics - bombast, glamour, and nihilism.

The bombast was most apparent in the music that had directly evolved from the beat music of the first wave of British rock bands. This was the hard rock of groups such as Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Free, which was ultimately an over-amplified and frenzied version of the Blues that was marked by its technical accomplishment and high standard of musicianship. Although this music would give birth to perhaps the most durable of all popular music genres, Heavy Metal, it was incapable of embodying or transmitting the intertwined utopian and antinomian sentiments of the Sixties counter culture. Led Zeppelin were particularly characteristic of this predicament; their music was vast and yet remote, gargantuan yet hollow; devoid of any yearning except perhaps for individual self indulgence. The characteristic that would erupt most evidently within the public sphere would be glamour, as evidenced in the emergence of Glam Rock. In many ways this was a retrograde movement, as it looked back to the "heart throbs" of the late 1950's, and indeed in the form of Alvin Stardust it literally facilitated their return. However, the more sophisticated proponents of Glam also drew energy from the sexual revolution, with gay liberation and feminism being subsumed within a miasma of double entendre and gender confusion. Glam was also partially a response to the introduction in Britain of colour television, which warranted the gaudy, glittery clothing and pancake make-up that were so essential to its disorientating shock effect. Nonetheless Glam, with its artificial teenage rampage, suffered from the same drawback as bombast in its lack of sincerity and spiritual content, in its inability to give political voice to the tumult of the times.

This was because the vertiginous sense of national decline had, if anything, accelerated as the Seventies had progressed. The Conservative government of Edward Heath was engulfed in economic turmoil which culminated in 1973 with an oil crisis, as the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) embargoed those countries, including Britain, that had supported Israel during its victorious Yom Kippur campaign. The resulting surge in an already perilous inflation rate spurred calls for industrial action from workers who were experiencing an effective cut in their purchasing power. Most critical of all were the miners, and at the end of 1973 Heath implemented a disastrous "three day week" policy in order to conserve coal stocks ahead of an anticipated strike, and to ensure that any available oil was diverted to transport stocks rather than power generation. The ensuing Miners' strike duly commenced at the beginning of February the following year, this being the third major episode of industrial action that the increasingly powerful and successful National Union of Mineworkers had undertaken in five years. In turn, Edward Heath called a General Election in order to obtain what he could declare as a public verdict against the strike, but the result was inconclusive and allowed Labour's Harold Wilson to instead form a weak minority government.

The sense among some elements of the ruling class was that the accumulating power of organised labour represented only one tendril of a nebulous "enemy within", which was being organised and directed by professional Soviet agitators. The intimation of impending collapse was only intensified by the increasingly violent and chaotic campaign of the Provisional IRA, whose Balcombe Street Gang would cause mayhem in central London. As a result, a number of disquieting right-wing pressure groups began to come to prominence, these having an explicit anti-communist and anti-trades union stance and nebulous links to the military. Such groups included the Freedom Association, the Economic League, and Civil Assistance, the latter of which was founded by none other than Walter Walker. Ostensibly conceived as a strike-breaking organisation, Walker's idle boast of it having 100,000 members sparked one of the more notable anxieties of the era, in the rumours of the mobilisation of private armies. As British politics appeared to be heading inexorably to a febrile climax, so the third major characteristic of Seventies popular music would come to the fore. The nihilistic response to the collapse of the counter-culture had hitherto been confined to a handful of cult American bands such as the Velvet Underground and the Stooges, and to the most proletarian and unfashionable strand of British heavy rock in the form of Black Sabbath. However, by the mid-Seventies some of the sharper minds in the British music industry had started to conceive of the possibility of packaging nihilism for the mass market. Most prominent of these was the agitator and entrepreneur Malcolm McLaren, who had attempted a trial run with the prematurely clapped-out New York Dolls.

The Conservative Party was also in the mood for experimentation. Walter Walker had formed Civil Assistance as a substitute for what he saw as the gaping absence of leadership within Britain's political class. This chasm would be filled to his great satisfaction in February 1975 by the accession to the leadership of the Conservative Party of Margaret Thatcher. Carefully nurtured by the party's most fervent economic ideologues, the icily determined Thatcher would prove to be a marked contrast to any of her predecessors. The stage was therefore set for the denouement of the post-war era.


  1. another great post

    a niggle - although colour TV started to creep in towards the end of the Sixties, it didn't become widespread on the consumer level until much later, so during glam-era something like 70 percent of households still watched Top of the Popson a black and white TV. (Also, psychedelia era pop was pretty garish sartorially, but virtually all TV was still black-and-white). Probably more significant to glam's impact was a surge in the number and the circulation of kid's magazines that were pop oriented, highly pictorial and in full colour (albeit often with the balance really off so lots of with lots of hideous flesh pinks etc)

    re Sukarno versus Suharto - Sukarno had been very anti Western pop culture decadence and promoted traditional musics, but Suharto actively encouraged rock music as part of the country's reorientation to America / the West. There is a great compilation of Indonesian hard 'n' heavy rock from that era

  2. I probably became conscious of TV as a thing around 1973-74, when I was four years old. We never owned a TV, but always hired one, because they were so unreliable in those days - if you hired one you could get an immediate replacement, rather than having to wait for the TV repair man (remember them?). As such we intermittently had b&w and colour, but mainly colour. We used to get all sorts of contraptions - I remember one TV we had came with cabinet-style doors, although that only lasted about a week.

    Me and my brother would always groan when a black and white set arrived, and then we would acclimatise to it almost instantly. It was a strange thing how when colour was there you felt that you couldn't miss it, but when it was gone you could so easily do without it.

    Good to see that Sukarno and Walter Walker were essentially on the same side!